Rethinking Music Therapy From the Perspective of Bio-politics

Hiroko Miyake

Who are we, in these contexts, today, and what are we doing here? (Pavlicevic, 2004, p. 47)

Can the cultural inclusion through music therapy really help clients construct identities? To go beyond this, I introduce Hardt and Negris' concept of multitude. This concept seems to resonate with many recent music therapists' intentions. The new ways of music making and therapy that can respect the singularity of musical expressions. I suggest that common ideas might be more acceptable within this conceptual framework.


In recent decades, music therapy in Europe has been established as a modern profession that requires special education. On the one hand, in this therapy, evidence of efficacy of music therapy is required for an understanding of the client's background and musical interaction process in relation to various treatment models within a scientific paradigm. On the other hand, a context-based approach such as Community Music Therapy or culture-centered music therapy appears in the international discourse.

Though both views are helpful to my practice, I still have felt something lacking in helping me to make music with severely disabled people. I began to think that my question might exist as a prelude to the dichotomy between science and context. This is the background that I hope to discuss.

The focus of my research is the set political implications in music therapy that I see as one of the most fundamental issues. In this paper, I will reconsider music therapy processes from the perspective of bio-politics, a term coined by Michel Foucault (1977, 1990) and developed by Giorgio Agamben (1998, 1999).and others. I anticipate that this discussion could contribute to further development of current effort to seek the context-based music therapy such as culture-centered music therapy or Community music therapy.

From Culture to Politics

From my perspective, our music therapy discourse needs to give more consideration to socio-cultural perspectives. Brynjulf Stige emphasizes the concept of culture in music therapy discourse and argues that music therapy cannot be developed as a culture free discipline (Stige 2002). He defined culture as the accumulation of customs and technologies enabling and regulating human coexistence (ibid. p. 38). This means that culture can be not only necessary and helpful, but also a repressive restriction of human agency.

One of the central concepts of Community Music Therapy discourse is "context". Mercedes Pavlicevic and Gary Ansdell describe Community Music Therapy as being different for different people in different places (Pavlicevic & Ansdell, 2004, p. 17). This means that we have to be contextually and culturally sensitive when we imagine certain music therapy for certain people in a certain place. Consequently, the discourse of Community music therapy reveals various dilemmas contained within traditional models of music therapy. Gary Ansdell regards such traditional models as "one-size fit any where" model and calls such an idea "the consensus model".

Ansdell views the current music therapy as a set of discourses (Ansdell, 2003). He points that music therapy is not found but made, and regards it as "a story we tell". Through this discussion, he further suggests the necessity of meta-theoretical perspectives on music therapy for further research.

Such relativist views may require further critical discussions on music therapy. Culture, context, and story are constructed and accumulated by sets of customs and knowledge, made of various sets of values, that establish the norms or morals that usually we do not notice in everyday life. However, they control us in every aspect of our lives, like an invisible political network. Therefore, the discussion on music therapy from a socio-cultural perspective cannot entirely escape from taking a political point of view. Though this topic has not been discussed enough yet in music therapy, I believe that it will bring important insights especially on the discussion of current context-based approaches such as culture-centered music therapy and Community Music Therapy.

Bio-politics and Bio-power

The concepts of bio-politics or bio-power were developed by Foucault to help us understand of one of the mechanisms of modern and post-modern society (Foucault, 1990).

What is bio-power? Here, we have to imagine that "power" comes from various micro-powers of our relationships that exist everywhere; of course, music therapy rooms or other arenas we work at are no exception.

According to Foucault, bio-power is the style of government that influences all aspects of life. From the 18th century onward, an ancient king's right to take people's lives or to keep them alive was replaced by the power to foster their lives or leave them derelict to the point of death. The specific characteristic of this power of "making them live" or "fostering their lives," means a change in the mode of domination of life by a person of power.

There are two axes in the history of modern bio-politics. One is characterized by disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. It affects each individualized human body as a machine. It makes a body docile. The famous "Panopticon" system designed for prisons is the symbolic form of this disciplinary power (Foucault, 1977, pp. 195-228). The other, a bio-politics of the population, which focuses on the whole species as one body. It is about management of birth, death, reproduction and illness in population.

Bio-power is a technology that incorporates these two sides of power. The human being is controlled as a whole as well as an individual. This has been achieved through the standardized norm or morality in our current society, which we sometimes call a managed and controlled society. Foucault points that the irony of this deployment is in making us believe that our "liberation" depends on the balance between these two (Foucault, 1990, p. 159). There is, however, a certain body of discussions on whether we can find exit from this state. Bio-politics is a point of view that discusses this complex system or mechanism which controls our lives. These are the Foucauldian illustration of the current situation around our lives and societies.

Figure 1. Bio-power (Foucault, 1990) in attached file

On the other hand Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben contends that the concept of bio-politics is the substance of all kinds of political power (Agamben, 1998). He started exploring this issue from understanding politics in Greece with a pair of concepts of life; one is bios, which is social life, or a particular form of life in a community. The other is zoe, which is natural life, or man as a living being that Agamben named bare life. According to Agamben, the constitution of the political system is made possible by an exclusion of bare life from political life that simultaneously makes bare life a condition of politics.

In modern society, however, Agamben argues that there is the inclusion of zoe in the polis or a political space. It is called "the state of exception" as a gray zone, or "zone of indistinction", between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion. Then, the exception becomes a rule and consistent in current society. Agamben sees this modern society as a realization of such complicated situations in which politics centers our very lives.

The fundamental activity of bio-power here is the production of bare life as the original political element and as threshold of articulation between nature and culture, zoe and bios. For example, he regards the Nazi camp as a bio-political paradigm of the modern age. Following Foucault, Agamben argues that racism is the process by which bio-power intrudes into the biological continuum of humanity and finally divides it into bare life (Agamben, 1999, p. 84). In other words, this can be regarded as the manipulation of life through division and reorganization of it, which deprives the realization of our own self-determined lives.

Figure 2. Two conceptions of life in the political system (Agamben, 1998) in attached file

The Case Study of Edward; Music Therapy Process as a Political Arena

Here I would like to discuss how these discussions could help us to think about the political implications of music therapy. I think it would be helpful to take the first session of Nordoff and Robbins' case study of Edward (Nordoff & Robbins, 1977) for discussing the bio-political aspect in music therapy.

From a bio-political point of view, the music making process can be considered as a political arena where zoe and bios meet. In this context, zoe can be imagined to represent a vital aspect of music. For example, vitality affects (Stern, 1985) which music therapists often use to explain musical interaction between client and therapist could be considered to belong to the conception of zoe. In addition, bios could be regarded as a concept concerned with the organizational aspect such as musical structure, form or idiom that is closely connected with culturally constructed musical meaning. As I mentioned above, the culturally constructed meaning is made of various sets of values that formulate norms or morals; therefore, we should conceive that the political relationships inevitably intervene in musical processes.

The focal point of the case study of Edward is how the music therapists meet a screaming Edward through music. We can conceive of Edward's scream as zoe, and therapists' musical intervention as bios. From this conceptual paradigm, I can interpret the therapists' effort to reorganize Edward's zoe toward the realm of bios. Under this conception, Edward's scream was regarded as chaos or formless confusion, and was controlled under musical structure or form in accord with music therapy processes. The significant point here is that this process can be seen as a promotion toward civilization and social conformity.

In the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, several music therapists discuss Edward from different perspectives. However, there seems to be a common story among all of the contributors. It is a story that they have all shared therapeutic value when Edward's scream moved on to culturally acceptable musical expression. For example, Randi Rolvsjord argues that this musical interaction gives Edward a position in a broader musical-cultural community (Rolvsjord, 1998). According to her, it is the first step toward a musical-cultural membership in a broader community. She emphasizes that music therapy has a revolutionary force that helps patients or clients transcend even the traditional musical idioms, musical politics in her words. Though I do not think she ignores a politically oriented point of view, I could presume, from her argument that a certain capacity is required to participate in the broader culture. This musical integration might increase "possibilities of action" (Ruud, 1998) or might be a process of civilization. Regarding this point, music therapy can be described as being deeply concerned with an aspect of civilization that of course no one might deny as one function of music therapy (social conformity).

Regarding bio-politics, music therapy discourse, so far, tends to be exclusively discussed from the side of bios, or civilization and little concern seems to be rendered from the perspective of zoe. Here Edward's life can be considered to have been reduced into "bare life" and then positioned under the cultural integration. All the music therapists who join this discussion show a deliberate attitude on chaotic aspects of expression, however, they understand them in terms of the possibility of moving from a primitive behavior toward an order that is considered to be dependent on musical languages. If we suppose chaos as an act of zoe, in this context, it should be bio-politically not understood as a possibility with intent or direction toward expression, but as "potentiality" of expression free from intent or direction.

Whose is Music Therapy? Toward Music Therapy as/of Multitude

From a bio-political view, I can suggest that many current discourses that seek a context-based approach such as Community Music Therapy or culture-centered music therapy tend exclusively to discuss on the side of bios. Then a question arises: "To whom does Music Therapy belong?" I would like to remark that my question does not mean to devalue the importance of the culturally concerned discussion of music therapy, but to develop it further. Do we not have to try to respond to the following questions? Can ‘cultural inclusion' through music therapy as civilization help clients construct identities in community? Can it possibly create disempowered people through this process? Do we possibly make culturally "others" by emphasizing the difference of culture? Finally, does this possibly mean the "new consensus model"?

From the perspective of bio-politics, I will consider the following two models as the two faces of Euro-centrism. One is a "consensus model", which is to reduce people into the same, standardized "one size fits anywhere" model as the culturally oriented music therapy has led us to conclude. The other is the problem with cultural difference that the culturally oriented music therapy has undertaken. A multicultural model is expected to overcome these problems. Nevertheless, problems remain. A multicultural model identifies the differences and integrates people as "different others" into a new ethic of community. This is why I would call it "new consensus model". Actually, both models assume western identity as a universal standard, that is to say, a measure for all the sameness and differences in every context. Therefore, in the same way, the multicultural model of music therapy is obliged to focus on the side of musical language and emphasize the sameness and differences of it. It is worth noting that these attitudes could be attributed to the western musicological idea.

How can we go beyond that? I would like to introduce Michael Hardt and Antonio Negris' concept of multitude (Hardt & Negri, 2004) here. They argue that the new form of global order has been emerging as a contemporary state of bio-power; it is a new sovereign power consisting of a broader network of people that they call Empire (Hardt & Negri, 2000). According to Hardt and Negri, Empire spreads its network of hierarchies and divisions that maintain order through new mechanisms of control globally. While Agamben illustrates this world as a concentration camp, Hardt and Negri describe it as a state of global civil war where all of us are forced to participate, and hence we need to seek new forms of participation in the world that they call the multitude.

The multitude is a potential social subject in the bio-political situation today. According to them, the multitude is composed of numbers of internal differences that can never be reduced to a unity or a single identity. They have different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, different ways of living, different views of the world, and different desires. Thus, the challenge posed by the concept of multitude is for a social multiplicity to manage to communicate and act in common while remaining internally different and consequently form new order autonomously. In this way, our communication, collaboration, and cooperation are not only based on the common, but they in turn produce the common. It intends to reorganize the network of individuals by excluding the controlling politics concealing in a culture, and this might be the clue to think over these problems. I would like to search for the third path after a consensus model and a multiculturalism of music therapy in this multitude idea.

Actually, this concept of multitude seems to resonate with many recent music therapists' intentions; Stige's says, "The music therapist could try to help clients through changing the world, if only a bit."(Stige, 2002, p. 128), arguing that social change could be a part of music therapist's agenda; Simon Procter also emphasizes music therapy practice as political engagement believing Social Capital through musical participation (Procter, 2004). The concept of multitude seems to fit his idea of Musical Capital (ibid., pp. 227-228) which promotes well-being not only as individuals but also as members of communities. I also would like to believe that we as the multitude could create new musical capital.

Then, how can clients and therapists be a part of the same multitude respectively to develop music therapy? There would not be a fixed answer, but I can suggest that music therapy is absolutely a political act and no one can escape from the problem; there is no outside. Finally, I would like to hope, through the consciousness of the multitude, that we could create new ways of music making which can respect the singularity and then finally produce the common.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press.

Agamben, G. (1999). Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and Archive. Zone Books.

Ansdell, G. (2003). The Stories We Tell: Some Meta-theoretical Reflections on Music Therapy. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 12(2), 152-159.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Vintage Books.

Nordoff, P. and Robbins, C. (1977). Creative Music Therapy. the John Day Company.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Harvard University Press. Also available to read the full text on

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2004). Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. Penguin Books.

Pavlicevic, M. (2004). Learning from Thembalethu: Towards Responsive and Responsible Practice in Community Music Therapy.,In M. Pavlicevic & G. Ansdell (Eds.), Community Music Therapy (pp. 35-47). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Pavlicevic, M. and Ansdell, G. (Eds.) (2004). Community Music Therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Procter, S. (2004). Playing Politics: Community Music Therapy and the Therapeutic Redistribution of Music Capital for Mental Health. In M. Pavlicevic & G. Ansdell (Eds.), Community Music Therapy (pp. 214-232). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Rolvsjord, R. (1998). Another Story about Edward.

Ruud, E. (1998). Music Therapy: Improvisation, Communication, and Culture. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Stern, D.N. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. Basic Books.

Stige, B. (2002). Culture-centered music therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.


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