Music Therapists Do It Differently: Tempo

In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part four of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here.

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#4. Tempo

One incredible advantage that live musicians have over recorded music is the ability to adjust tempo. That is, we can play slower or faster depending on what is happening in the room. Any skilled musician may make some of these choices:

  • Bumping up the tempo to raise the energy level, or slowing it down a bit so people can keep up dancing
  • Matching the tempo of a famous recording or the composer’s specifications, or choosing to play much faster or slower for an intended musical effect
  • Adjusting tempo for our fellow musicians (e.g. slowing down to the new drummer’s pace.)

Musical decisions about tempo have to do with sounding great as performers with mindfulness towards the audience we’re trying to reach.

Music therapists take this a step further, choosing and modifying tempo to address clinical concerns.

Let’s start with an example from a group session. Using the same scenario as in an earlier post, imagine music therapist Janet leading a group playing rhythm instruments along with the song “Singing in the Rain.” A common goal for this kind of experience involves bringing everyone into the music-making experience at their own level, to promote environmental awareness, group cohesion, and socialization.

"How did she get Robert to play in time with everyone else? He's usually just making noise, not music!"

“How did she get that Robert to play in time with everyone else? He’s usually just making noise, not music!”

Janet might have one tempo in mind when she starts singing, but she notices one resident – Robert – playing his drum with a steady beat slightly ahead of her tempo. Janet could try to get Robert to match her beat. In fact, she would have to do this if she were using recorded music. Instead, she just speeds up a bit to match Robert and help the group meet at one tempo.

The result is more musically pleasing, increasing everyone’s satisfaction with the music they’ve created together, and Janet has helped someone be in the music with others who might have struggled otherwise.

Tempo choices are also important in one-to-one sessions. In fact, one technique I use often in hospice care is all about tempo. We call it entrainment or using the iso principle, and it involves starting music at a higher tempo, matching the client’s energy, anxiety, or pain level, then gradually decreasing the tempo. Because our bodies want to match the dominant rhythm in the environment, this helps the client to relax, in body and mind. (Read more about using the principle of entrainment for yourself here.)

As you can see from these examples, playing music live allows for tempo adjustments much more easily than using recorded music. Add to that music therapists’ extensive training and practice in making tempo and other musical choices according to clinical needs, and you can see why music therapists can make such a difference.

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