Arts-based research is the mixing up of social science and the arts. In recent years there has been a move towards using the arts to tease out deeper experiences in social science. Dance, drama, art and music all have the capacity to communicate emotional, embodied and sensory experience that words can’t always effectively translate (McNiff, 1998; Leavy, 2015).
As music therapists we have been slow in research to utilise our skills as musicians. The reasons for this may have been born out of a need to prove ourselves as a profession, in a society which can value quantifiable facts over sensory-embodied experience (Barone and Eisner, 2012).
Recently some music therapy researchers have started to explore how we can use music as data, as a reflexive tool and as a way of disseminating research in our work. Ledger and McCaffrey (2015) have provided a short literature review of recent music therapy studies which employ arts-based practices. Music therapists have begun to not only use music, but other arts such as poetry, and sculpture to deepen understanding of therapeutic processes. Interesting studies include, Gilbertson (2015) who explored phenomenological narratives of music therapists work through taking casts of their hands, and Beer (2015) who used improvisations and interviews to investigate the experiences of Asian music-therapists training in the USA.
The arts have a unique and important role to play in qualitative research, and as music therapists we have special skills which we can employ. Many of us have music analysis skills, transcription, in-depth understanding of musical processes and knowledge of how music inter-relates with human relationships. In my doctorate, focusing on the experiences of music students learning to improvise, I am going to combine improvisations with semi-structured interviews. I am using music as data because improvisation can reveal deep psychological processes, encouraging participants to make new insights into their experience. The music for me is as important as the spoken word, and not an extra compoent or alternative way of working.
Finally, the philosopher Langer captures something of how the arts can contribute to our understanding of human experience in social science research. She writes about arts as forms of presentational communication, which are:
‘forms of human feeling … forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and slowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses … not joy and sorrow perhaps, but the poignancy of either and both … the greatness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally felt. Such is the pattern, or logical form, of sentience … (Langer, 1953, p.27).
Barone, T., and Eisner, E, W. (2012) arts based research. Los Angeles: Sage.
Beer, L.E. (2015) Crisscrossing Cultural Divides: Experiences of US-Trained Asian Music Therapists. Qualitative Inquiries in Music Therapy, 10(4), pp. 127-173.
Gilberston, S. (2015) In Visible Hands: The Matter of Making of Music Therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 52(4), pp. 487-514.
Jones, K. (2006) A Biographic Researcher in Pursuit of an Aesthetic: The use of arts-based (re)presentations in “performative” dissemination of life stories. Qualitative Sociology Review II, I.
Ledger, A., and McCaffrey, T. (2015) Performative Arts-Based, or Arts-Informed? Reflections on the Development of Arts-Based Research in Music Therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 52(4), pp. 441-456.
Langer, S. (1953) Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Leavy, P. (2015) Method Meets Art. (2nd ed). New York: The Guildford press.
McNiff, S. (1998) Art-Based Research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.