Watch a group of musicians perform — whether a chamber quartet or stadium rockers — and you can see a key part of playing together successfully is the subtle interaction and communication involved.
For Dr Grace Thompson, a music therapist, lecturer and researcher at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, it is these interactions that drive her work with children newly diagnosed with autism who find it difficult to connect.
“The child might happily play for hours in their own kind of play but if someone tries to join them they are not so interested in that,” Dr Thompson says.
“This is where, for me, music becomes a really powerful tool, because the children are actually motivated by the music and, almost before they realise it, they are interacting with someone at the same time.”
Dr Thompson, a multi-instrumentalist who has been active musically since childhood, first heard about music therapy after getting into the Melbourne Conservatorium as a singer.
She is now the president of the Australian Music Therapy Association and has spent two decades working in the field in special education and early intervention — usually with children aged between three and four.
The weekly sessions typically involve making music in collaboration with the child and their family in whatever style, and using whatever instruments — from guitar to percussion — they respond to best.
“It’s a really tough time for families and for children,” she says.
“Their children are often quite challenging to engage at that early time after diagnosis so the music is important on a whole range of levels. Some parents will say that music is the only thing that calms their child down.
“Some will say their child interacts more, and some will say that it’s the only thing they can do together with their child and enjoy it and so it’s valuable on that level.
“We know a lot of our earliest interactions as human beings are musical — we don’t come into the world talking, but yet we seek to have connections with people. The ways we do that are often through these non-verbal musical interactions.”
Dr Thompson says the way music works to foster these connections is not fully understood but some of the theories being explored are based on early non-verbal musical communication, where “to be musical is deeply human”.
Others revolve around neuroscience, with music working as a particularly active stimulus to our brains, as shown through MRI experiments.
The types of music we enjoy may also be ones we are exposed to early on — even inside the womb. We also associate different pieces with emotional memories, such as a wedding song that a dementia patient may recognise and respond to at a time when they may not even know their spouse anymore.
Dr Thompson says she returned to research at the University of Melbourne because she found herself committed to providing evidence for what music therapists do. She is currently the Australian site manager for the largest psychosocial trial for autism intervention of any kind.
The global trial involves making music with more than 300 children with autism and their families in nine countries across US, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
“It’s a truly multicultural perspective we are getting in this study and we are super-excited to see what the results show,” she says. “What we hope to find is what we feel as music therapists — that there is an impact on the social interaction with the children afterwards.
“We don’t expect to cure autism, that’s not our intention, but we are wanting to make a difference in their skills and their development so they can participate in their communities better.
“If they don’t want to interact with you then it is incredibly difficult to do anything else in terms of development and teaching.”
Furthering this “collision of ideas” from the arts and sciences is something Dr Thompson is deeply committed to in her practice.
She has just had a proposal collaborating with the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute’s researchers approved which aims to look into ways to improve a child’s visual attention using music over other kinds of play.
“We have the ‘Music, Minds and Wellbeing’ initiative which is a partnership between the Conservatorium and Neuroscience,” she says. “That connection between art and science is something that is trying to be fostered.
That’s the agenda — to keep working collaboratively.
As an artist and a therapist I have a certain perspective and I need my colleagues in science to be able to pull those theories together.
“For me, the early childhood time is where I focus my research. I want to have the opportunity to make a difference in the trajectory of development. That’s what really inspires me in my work — the potential for that to have a long-ranging impact on the person.”