Music therapy gives new brain insight

Gary Barlow visits a Nordoff Robbins mother and baby group

Gary Barlow visits a Nordoff Robbins mother and baby group - Credit: DFS-David Fisher/ Rex Features

Music therapy has been developed to help change the lives of many people, from high-security prisoners to children with autism

Stella Compton-Dickinson recalls one of her music therapy sessions at Rampton – the secure psychiatric hospital for people who have committed serious offences.

“We had a patient, this man, playing on the Jendai drums,” she says. “He was playing away and looked up at me and said, ‘Wow this is better than drugs!’”

Compton-Dickinson, a therapist based in Muswell Hill, began her career as a successful musician playing regularly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and touring as the principal oboist with the renowned Rambert Dance Company.

In 1993, she decided to train as a music therapist at the Guildhall after receiving a scholarship. Music therapy, much like other therapies, can be used to treat a variety of people in a variety of settings – albeit in varying ways.

Compton-Dickinson has developed a unique music therapy to treat people with severe psychological disorders who have committed serious criminal offences and are in high security hospitals like Rampton.

“The way that forensic music therapy works is the patient will select an instrument and improvise with it. The patient expresses themselves without words, gaining confidence through building the relationships with peers and the therapist in the room sufficient to feel brave enough to select an instrument and to improvise with it – even if they have never used an instrument before.”

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Compton-Dickinson uses an instrument called a sounding bowl. “The sounding bowl is great because it is not a conventional instrument and sometimes patients feel more comfortable using it.”

The music made is recorded and analysed to give a key to the patient’s mental state and help their rehabilitation.

“The music is congruent to the thoughts and feelings of the person. If they are feeling happier that day or have made a breakthrough then they might play joyful music or, if they are feeling down, the sounds might be different. We have to try to figure it out.”

Currently the sessions are one-to-one, but Compton-Dickinson is trying to develop group sessions that are more cost effective.

“These people have committed the worst crimes you could have possibly thought of, but part of our job as therapists is to not see them as ‘uncurable monsters’.

“This is untrue and their conditions can be helped by therapy. Patients often come from terrible backgrounds and that is part of why they have committed the offence,” says Compton-Dickinson, who has recently published a book on the topic to help others in clinical settings to practice her form of music therapy.

When someone has committed an offence and is admitted to a high-security institution, they have a therapy programme that takes up the majority of their day.

Music therapy of the kind Compton-Dickinson has developed is one strand used alongside others. The therapy is there to rehabilitate them to be able to eventually live in society, though this process takes time – the average stay at these institutions is six and a half years.

An important part of dealing with people of this nature is the risk associated with them. Compton-Dickinson says she feels safest when working in the institutions but it is important not to make her patients feel uncomfortable, not least because they have difficult mental backgrounds.

“They can look at which instruments might be of interest to them and take their time with it. Many of the participants have never had any experience with musical instruments in their life and it is important that they don’t feel threatened.

“When men in the institution feel threatened, they tend to lash out and when women do, they tend to self-harm.”

“We also don’t want them to revisit what is called their ‘index offence’ by doing offence re-enactments and repeating the psychological path that led them to the offence, for example, going beserk on the drums in a violent way.

“This is unhelpful as therapy is trying to move them away from these thought patterns and we encourage positivity.”

After developing this therapy, Compton-Dickinson is keen that the general public do not see it as simply an easy way out for someone who has committed a serious crime. Her book, she says, is an important development in widening the practice of music therapy. “It is the way forward in giving people a treatment that we have tested and actually found to have a beneficial effect.”

Music therapy is not only used in the case of people who have been through the criminal justice system. Therapists at Nordoff Robbins, a national music charity with a base in Kentish Town, work with people in care homes, day centres, hospitals schools and their own music therapy centres who are affected by a range of genetic and neurological illnesses.

Nordoff Robbins use different methods to Compton-Dickinson as their patients have come to music therapy for different reasons.

The similarity lies in the success of music to help transform people. “Music therapy at Nordoff Robbins takes many different forms because we tailor therapies to the people we are treating. It can be particularly helpful to those who are struggling to communicate with the external world,” says Rachel Verney, the head of music services there.

“It is extremely beneficial to those people who don’t possess words, such as an autistic child or a person with dementia, who are disorientated in time and space.”

Music therapy at Nordoff Robbins can involve anything from songwriting, improvisation with instruments, singing and music-based storytelling.

Like Compton-Dickinson, the therapists at Nordoff Robbins are all highly musically trained and so can involve anybody at any level, even if the person hasn’t played an instrument before.

The charity has also seen celebrity endorsement, including Gary Barlow, Michael Bublé and Kylie Minogue.

Barlow joined a mother and baby group, singing a rendition of The Wheels on the Bus while Bublé and Minogue were part of the charity’s annual Silver Clef awards – a fundraising awards event.

The universality of music means that it can be used to communicate with almost anyone. Verney cites the bond of people playing in a band or fans chanting at a football match as evidence of the unity that music can bring. “Everyone responds to music – it affects our bodies so it can have physical benefits and mentally it affects mood significantly,” says Verney. “It unifies people in a way that nothing else does.”

The network that Nordoff Robbins provides connects both children and their parents, who can share their personal experiences of being carers. Previously detached children get the opportunity to have group sessions with their peers and learn to socialise.

When it comes to people with brain injury, music therapy is successful in ways that normal language may not be.

When a 12-year-old girl came to Nordoff Robbins with severe autism, she wouldn’t let anyone touch her and music was the only common ground. “She found it very hard to communicate with the outside world and would scream when anyone came near her, walking around with a radio on her shoulder blaring out music,” says Verney.

“The sessions were initially very difficult yet, after music therapy, she became considerably calmer and, by the end, was even playing the piano with her therapist. This had a knock-on effect for the rest of her life as she was able to go to a specialist school, which she hadn’t been able to do previously.”

Verney also recalls the time a man with severe depression, who was in a psychiatric hospital, at first refused to take part in the therapy. “After a while, he began to take up the therapy. It really helped him and he said to me, ‘I know I’m going to get well now because now I’ve heard the well part of myself.’”

Forensic Music Therapy: A Treatment For Men and Women In Secure Hospital Settings by Stella Compton-Dickinson is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and priced £24.99. For information about Nordoff Robbins, visit