Is the Violin Useful for Music Therapy?


This week I am excited to share a guest blog post from music therapist and improvising musician Nicky Haire. Nicky works at NHS Lothian and is currently studying for a PhD in improvisation, music therapy and humour at The University of Edinburgh. Nicky is also the joint improvisation network co-ordinator (with myself) for the British Association of Music Therapy. Nicky writes:

I’ve really been enjoying Becky’s posts about using different instruments in music therapy. I play the violin and I’m a passionate advocate about using it in music therapy. But then, I’m a passionate advocate about using any instrument with which you have a profound relationship. I’m interested in the relationships we have with our instruments. We all bring our musical histories into sessions and that includes an embodied knowing of our instrument/s. I think understanding this relationship is important.

Like the other instruments Becky has been exploring, each has their own unique quality that brings different possibilities into a session. I enjoy the timbre of a violin, its tone and its musical versatility, but most of all I enjoy the act of playing it. I find that playing the violin can be a very physically affecting experience; it rests just above your heart and often, particular notes resonate physically. It is a seemingly fragile yet incredibly robust instrument and I enjoy that paradox which brings rich variety in therapeutic work. People I have worked with have often approached the violin with great respect, some excitement and a sense of discovery, clutching the bow tightly and opening their arms widely to receive it. I have seen people with dementia cradling a violin like a small child.

Some of the most important moments as a music therapist have been when I have connected with someone using my violin. I have written more about these, alongside other instrumentalists in the book ‘Flute, Accordion or Clarinet?’ edited by Amelia Oldfield, Jo Tomlinson and Dawn Loombe (2015). However, one example from more recent work with older people is striking.

During one particular group session we were slowly passing a tambourine round the loosely formed circle. I was following the tambourine with my violin and playing and interacting with whoever had it, at same time holding the experience of the group musically. I came to one woman, Jane, who was sitting stiffly in her wheelchair with her lips pressed together. She immediately put her hands out and indicated that she wanted to hold the violin. So I knelt down in front of her, gave her the bow and gently placed the violin on her shoulder while taking the weight of the scroll. She began to draw the bow across the open strings and after a short while I started to hum with her. Someone else in the group took this up vocally and it quickly became a recognisable song. The group’s singing was sensitive and respectful; it seemed to become a reciprocal experience with Jane leading the group and the group supporting her. When Jane stopped playing, she smiled and her neighbour commented: ‘that was lovely’. To experience that level of group cohesion and awareness, as shown by this comment, was exceptional in this particular group which could be very chaotic.

When the group came to an end, I was saying goodbye to everyone and I came to Jane. I mentioned the violin playing and she leaned in closely and said: ‘thank you for letting me try.’ This was the first time I had heard Jane speak.

The violin can offer much in music therapy. The shared playing of it offers opportunities that can quickly dispel an expert/non-expert dichotomy. I’ve found that this has enabled trust and given people, from young boys with autism and teenagers with emotional difficulties to older adults with dementia, a sense of empowerment.


Oldfield, A., Tomlinson, J., & Loombe, D. (eds.). (2015). Flute, accordion or clarinet? using the characteristics of our instruments in music therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



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