[Book review] Ansdell, G. (2015). How music helps in music therapy and everyday life.

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[Book review] Ansdell, G. (2015). How music helps in music therapy and everyday life.


Rimmer, J. (2016). [book review] Ansdell, G. (2015). How music helps in music therapy and everyday life. Australian Journal of Music Therapy, 27, 69-70. Retrieved from http://www.austmta.org.au/journal/article/book-review-ansdell-g-2015-how-music-helps-music-therapy-and-everyday-life

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Date published: October 2016

Ansdell, G. (2015). How music helps in music therapy and everyday life. Surrey, UK: Ashgate. AUS $99.95, 351 pages, (hard copy), AUS $32.30 (eBook), ISBN: 1472458052.

        Gary Ansdell’s How Music Helps in Music Therapy and Everyday Life is the second of three books from the Music and Change: Ecological Perspectives series.  It follows Tia DeNora’s first volume, Music Asylums: Wellbeing Through Music in Everyday Life, and precedes the forthcoming Musical Pathways for Mental Health, by both authors.  The trio of books have arisen from an interdisciplinary partnership between sociology and music therapy, stemming from a six-year community music study (Chelsea Community Music Therapy Project).

Ansdell sets out to explore an “ecological framework for understanding the key continuities between the specialist area of music therapy and people’s more everyday experiences of how music promotes wellbeing” (preface).  Through a series of carefully considered chapters he successfully joins the dots between these often separated contexts, investigating their mutual influences and the potential for each to positively impact society’s broader uses of music.  Readers should note that the ‘how’ in the title refers to, “in what ways” music helps (p. xv), rather than specific mechanisms for change during engagement with/in music. From the outset, Ansdell clearly positions his core beliefs around innate musicality, referring to people’s relationship with music as being on a spectrum from ‘lovers’ to ‘needers’ of music.  No direct mention is made of those who express no desire or connection with music, though the complex and individual nature of all connections with music is acknowledged and nuanced throughout.

Ansdell has shaped this book to take the reader on a journey of thinking about musical ecology across six carefully organised subject sections.  Part one, ‘musical worlds’, provides grounding in concepts and the importance of music in human systems, large and small.  The lens becomes more focused in Part two, where Ansdell explores the dynamics of ‘musical experience’ with an acknowledgement of constructivist influences.  ‘Musical personhood’, Part three, goes deeper into thinking about the musical elements of being a human – connection with and expression of musicality and identity.

Part four moves on to ‘musical relationship’, from individual connection to music to interactions and understanding between individuals and groups.  ‘Musical community’ (Part five) takes these concepts further and looks at music’s integral contributions and centrality to culture and participation in society.  Ansdell takes his consideration even further in Part six, ‘Musical transcendence’, where he discusses more abstract concepts such as hope, spirituality and aesthetics.

While the content is heavily sociological, Ansdell ensures he uses musical language along with case vignettes and quotes that promote clarity and maintain interest.  Examples are drawn from people across the lifespan, termed ‘voyagers’ (those who have experienced music during times of challenge), ‘locals’ (those who articulate everyday musical experiences, including music therapists) and ‘scholars’ (interdisciplinary researchers).  The spectrum of voices and experiences ensure the dialogue is attractive for those who are interested in a variety of clinical contexts beyond ‘community’ settings – psychiatry, disability, neurology, aged and palliative care to name a few.

Australian readers will likely note some differences in cultural contexts; references to classical music traditions and improvisational music therapy methods are dominant, however they do translate readily.  Of particular interest for music therapists is the way Ansdell discusses the impact of changes or events in a person’s life that may challenge their sense of self and musicianship, such as illness or disability, and the potential for music on this continuum.

Ansdell explores the complexity and phenomenology of the ‘spaces between’ with curiosity, depth and respect.  Informed by interdisciplinary research, theory, experience and multiple perspectives, How Music Helps is a dynamic and refreshing read.  It is relevant across contexts, from community to acute medical/psychiatric settings and will stimulate considered thought.  How Music Helps is an excellent contributor to the field of music therapy in particular, uniting traditionally opposing schools of thought and supporting the use of music across contexts.  As Ansdell concludes, “when we say that music helps, what we are really saying is that music helps us to help each other” (p. 305).