Interplay Between Music Therapy & Narrative Therapy – Part 1

Mackenzie Costron. Accredited Music Therapist. Registered Counselling Therapist. Halifax Nova Scotia. Mental Health. Grief. Loss. Bereavement. Dementia. Alzheimer's.

Written By: Mackenzie Costron, RCT, MTA, BMT. Owner of Find Your Voice Music Therapy: Kingston, ON & Halifax, NS

The Narrative Therapy Centre defines narrative therapy as, “a collaborative and non-pathologizing approach to counselling and community work which centres people as the experts of their own lives.  A narrative approach views problems as separate from people and assumes people as having many skills, abilities, values, commitments, beliefs and competencies that will assist them to change their relationship with the problems influencing their lives.  It is a way of working that considers the broader context of people’s lives particularly in the various dimensions of diversity including class, race, gender, sexual orientation and ability.”

Today’s medical community generally has a strong emphasis on the assessment, diagnosis, and discharge process.  In narrative therapy a less pathologizing view has shifted narrative therapists focus from, “what is wrong in people to what is strong in people.” (Duvall 2014).  People’s lives are multi-storied and it is believed that the story according to the diagnostic label does not solely define the person’s being. (White 2007, Duvall 2014, Young 2014, Carlson 1997).  It is important to note that if the individual in therapy finds positivity and strength in their diagnosis that this label can serve as a meaningful aspect to their identity.

In music therapy, the therapist integrates all domains of health including cognitive, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual for wellness, growth and restoration.  This allows for the music therapist to guide the individual to bring balance to all areas of life, and to assist them to shift away from problems that are owning their identity.  Through this view we have the ability, whether it is through the creation of music in music therapy or language in narrative therapy, to focus on what is meaningful and important to the individual.  This focus allows for a non-totalizing approach of person’s identity and an exploration of one’s hopes and dreams for who they wish their preferred self to be.  (Duvall 2014, Young 2014, White 2007)

Therapeutic Posture

Within music and narrative therapy the therapist holds a non-expert position.  David Epston, states that many medical and healthcare professions take a “let me teach you what to do” stance.  Versus a narrative therapy stance which asks the individual to teach the therapist what they already know about their life. (Duvall 2015)  The individual whom consults the therapist becomes an expert of knowledge with their life and the therapist serves as a mentor or guide within the therapeutic process.  They assist the person on a journey that has a meaningful destination through the perspective of the individual.  (Duvall 2014, Young 2014, White 2007)  As Michael White, founder of narrative therapy, has stated, “an individual’s experience can only be processed or interpreted by the individual in relation to what the individual has already experienced.” (Hudson 2008) 

The therapist’s role is to bring their leadership and facilitation skills and to help organize the individual’s insider knowledge. (Duvall 2015)  Shamanic tradition believes that all human beings have the ability to heal from within.  “The role of the shaman is to act as an experienced educated facilitator for a given individual’s journey toward activating this self healing ability”. (Hudson 2008)  It is important within a music and narrative therapy position that the therapist is an equal observer in the process or as Calson (1997) states a “co-creator”.

Individual Centred Process

In music and narrative therapy it is recognized that a therapist’s biases and judgments can come up in therapy.  It is extremely important for the therapist to be aware of this and for the individual’s story to remain at the centre of the process. (Duvall 2014, Young 2014)  It is also important for the therapist to understand exactly what the individual is expressing and for no assumptions to be made according to the therapist’s perspective and knowledge.  As Jim Duvall states, “we need to always be committed to asking more about what is meant by the people in front of us saying those words, and committed to being perhaps more playful and creative in using a variety of words in a variety of ways.”

Deconstruction and Externalizing Practices

Within a narrative therapy session there is movement from the “known and familiar” to the “possibly known”.  It is the individual that dictates what material is known and the therapist does not introduce reflections, thoughts, or ideas according to their personal or professional agenda.   The therapist spends detailed time, “getting to know the person away from the problem.”  Speaking about an individual’s strengths, abilities, and competences will only aid in the process of developing tools and strategies for dealing with the problem. (Young 2014)

Within White’s “Statement of Position: Map 1” an individual is invited to express what is meaningful for them to address within therapy.  To state what is no longer serving them and what is important for them to move forward.  Rich story development is used to describe the problem but in an externalized way, as in not fully connected to the individual’s personal identity and sense of self.  White refers to this as “negotiating a particular, experience-near definition of the problem.”  As mentioned, one of the fundamental principles of narrative therapy is that the problem does not define the person but is rather a separate entity of themselves.  Narrative therapists believe that every individual has many alternative storylines away from the problem that contribute to self-identity. 

Once the problem is externalized the therapist will spend time describing or “mapping” the effects of the problem.  Exploration of significant areas in the person’s life such as work, school, family, friends, and themselves are included. “People’s identities are the result of social collaboration with others, through shared narratives, taking into account how they view themselves and how others view them.” (Duvall 2014) 

Time is then taken to discover the “requirements of the problem” and to investigate the “process of recruitment.”  Stories are influenced by culture, background, values, experiences, and perceptions within our lives.  In this stage the therapist may ask: What rules is the problem trying to impose? What were the influences? Where did these rules come from?  The therapist will then guide the individual to describe the effects that the problem has on their life. 

In conclusion “justification of the effects of the problem” will be reviewed.  What are their reasons for their likes and dislikes of the problem? What are their preferences, dreams, and hopes for the future?  Erin Rittich-Haber (2005) states that we turn to others to regulate our emotions.  It is within the relationship between the therapist and individual whom consults us that preferred identity claims can be made.


Austin, D. (2008). The theory and practice of vocal psychotherapy: Songs of the self. London, NI and Philadelphia. PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Carlson, T. (1997). Using Art In Narrative Therapy: Enhancing Therapeutic Possibilities. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 271-283.

Duvall, J., & Bres, L. (2011). Innovations in narrative therapy: Connecting practice, training, and research. New York: W.W. Norton.

Duvall, J. (2014). Narrative Therapy Extern Program Lecture. Presented at the Hincks-Delcrest Institute.

Hudson, M. (2008). Art Therapy, Narrative Therapy, and the Comic Format: An Investigation of the Triadic Synthesis. Research Paper in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies.

Rittich-Haber, E. (2015) Narrative Therapy Extern Program Lecture. Presented at the Hincks-Delcrest Institute.

Young, K. (2014-2015) Narrative Therapy Extern Program Lectures. Presented at the Hincks- Delcrest Institute.

White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.