Analytical Music Therapy (AMT) techniques II


Techniques for accessing the unconscious

Various techniques have been described by Priestley to gain access to the unconscious realm. One of the main way is through symbols which is also a main technique in psychoanalysis. Symbols are a way to access and understand the unconscious mind. “Symbols are accumulators and transformers of psychic energy. They have the relationship to ideas and action that an iceberg has to a waterfall”. (Priestley 1975) “It is the cold, frantic denial of emotion that causes horrible splits in the mind and leaks out into strange ideas, bodiless voices and chill moonlit inner landscapes”. (Priestley 1975)

Symbols can be explored in dream work with the individual where he or she finds the association with each object in the dream and imagines oneself being the object. The therapist will then lead the individual to find the link between the dream and everyday life. Through improvisation, the therapist can also lead the individual to go back and find a good resolution and ending to a very bad dream.

In the beginning, there is a need for a loosening-up process  to allow the unconscious to “fertilise the conscious mind”. (Priestley 1975) Symbols will reveal more to the therapist because the individual may not even be aware of it. Priestley also worked a lot with guided imagery improvisations to access the unconscious mind. Individuals are given certain imageries which he or she will improvise to. At the end, there will be a playback of the recorded musical improvisation with a discussion with the individual on what he or she is experiencing and imagining throughout the improvisation.     

Following are some of the guided imagery improvisations used by Priestley:  

Cave Mouth:  the individual is asked to imagine “standing hidden behind a tree in a forest clearing watching the mouth of a cave. As she watches, something emerges”. (Priestley 1994) The individual will improvise according to this imagery and this has been found to reveal suppressed emotions and can be seen as pre-verbal images.   

Ascending a Mountain: the individual is made to imagine this ascent and later to describe the difficulties, obstacles and finally the view from the top. The mountain is the symbol of life’s aspiration.  

Door in a High Wall: the title of the subject to be explored is written on the door and the individual is to open and see what is behind.

Shells, Stones, Sand and Sounds: with the therapist playing xylophone and cymbal, the individual will put the shell or stone on the sand in a tray repeatedly and slowly in a calming mindless manner which is believed to bring out the deepest hidden thoughts from within the individual.

Through these various techniques, the hidden emotions may emerge from the unconscious realm for the individual to become aware of. Priestley (1994) indicated that it is important to have reflection, knowledge and understanding of the emotions that are released during the therapy. Without this, it will just be a temporary relief with tension mounting again with the need for another relief. “Once an emotion is clothed in words, they both can become like building blocks that one can play with”. (Priestley 1994) So it is important to process together, understand and verbalise the emotional release that has happened. Within Freud’s theoretical framework, the ego is not satisfied with the relief through musical expression and needs an understanding. “Feelings not conscious enough to form words can be expressed in sound, and when the emotion is thus clothed, words are able to take over the expression of the feelings once more”. (Priestley 1994) Therapist and individual will listen to the playback of the recorded improvisation and talk about the feelings expressed. “With the music as anchor the consciousness enters strange, not very well-known regions”. (Priestley 1994) Feelings can be expressed in music, sometimes even hidden feelings so that they can be made aware and eventually accepted by the individual.    

 “Sometimes an inner change comes about by bringing to the surface a festering thought which was working away beneath the level of consciousness”. (Priestley 1975) Once made conscious, the individual can work through it and prevent the suppressed emotions to remain in the unconscious realm or even be expressed unknowingly as negative actions in real life. In music therapy, the individual comes into confrontation with emotions that have been split off. Slowly the individual will accept, own the hidden emotions and work through them.

The music expressed by the individual will change as the therapist goes deeper into the psyche. This is termed by Priestley as inner music which “is the prevailing emotional climate behind the structure of someone’s thoughts”. (Priestley 1975)

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