As a sound researcher and presenter of music, I’ve been examining concomitants of listening situations for a long time. The underlying principles of receptive music therapy, however, were unknown to me until now. Obviously, listening is crucial when the technique gets applied, but how does it work and could it possibly be an appropriate form of therapy for misophonia?

Prof. Dr. phil. Isabelle Frohne-Hagemann

In conversation with licensed psychotherapist Prof. Dr. phil. Isabelle Frohne-Hagemann I want to find out if there are similarities between receptive music therapy and my own approach to listening. 

Frohne-Hagemann is an experienced certified music therapist, and an accredited therapist and trainer for Guided Imagery and Music according to Helen Bonny (GIM). In 2001, she co-founded the Berlin-based Institute for Music, Imagination and Therapy (IMIT) and has been teaching the receptive therapy form GIM and Music Imagery there since 2008.

Paul Paulun:

What role did R. Murray Schafer’s observations on the nature of soundscapes and acoustic ecology play for you?

Isabelle Frohne-Hagemann:

That was in the early Seventies, when these things became significant. I was writing school radio programs, where the idea was that children should learn to listen consciously. Learning in the sense of experiencing and implementing, so they should go out into nature to find out about sounds and make collages with sounding materials later. Then they came up with tree bark and stones and things like that. That was the beginning to learn a new way of listening. 


For a few years now, many people seem to be unlearning how to consciously listen to their surroundings. There are more and more people with headphones around – even in nature, where one could actually relax by listening into the distance or enjoying little sounds.


My therapy work aims to keep people away from walking around with headphones and bombarding their ears. It’s about listening consciously, getting engaged with music and listening carefully to the music and emerging images, e.g. what the bass is doing, what the melody is saying, how something is developing within a piece, and what it is saying to you and what kind of images and sensations arise while listening.

During GIM, you’re in a different state of mind and go on an inner journey.


What is the background of this form of therapy?


It’s a method called Guided Imagery and Music that was developed in the Sixties by Helen Bonny. She was a music therapist and psychotherapist, and at that time she worked in the USA at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore. There were experiments with patients who were given a small dose of LSD and she was supposed to choose music that would support the development of inner images. 

These were LSD journeys of twelve hours, accompanied by classical music. But then she realized that you don’t need drugs to go on such a journey and she shortened the music to 20-40 minutes and four to five different pieces of music that are very finely tuned to each other. 

The patient listens to the music while lying down and is thus brought into a non-ordinary state of consciousness. But this is not a deep trance; one converses while listening.


How does that work in concrete terms?

Isabelle Frohne-Hagemann (ed.) – Guided Imagery and Music (2014, 312 pp.), cover, Reichert Verlag


First, of course, there’s a preliminary conversation where you clarify what’s going on. In your case, that would be the question of how this misophonia came about. Possibly there was a traumatic experience in childhood that you remember? If so, I would know that you‘d need a lot of new and positive experiences to gradually overwrite the old ones. 

I would then choose appropriate music and we would be in a dialogue while listening to the music. I could ask you, “What are you aware of?” You would describe the music to me or you would say, there is a forest right now or you are standing in a meadow, or some other images emerging. Of course, such images are all symbolically expressed feelings. When a thunderstorm comes, it’s clear that something is getting scary, something doesn’t feel right, you don’t really know what’s happening and need protection.

That’s a really deep listening experience. You’re in a different state of mind and go on an inner journey. You may have feelings of utmost gratitude that the music is so wonderful and understands you so well, then you’re moved to tears. 

But it could also be that you don’t like the music and you realize that something about it makes you aggressive – and then you might address it with the help of the therapist, like: “You shit you, I don’t want you!” Maybe this is also a transfer from another experience, that someone has done you harm, and you actually get pretty mad, but weren’t allowed to say it, but here you can. The music doesn’t mind, after all.

Depending on what you have experienced, you add your own images to the music.


How are these music programs designed?


It’s quite time-consuming to design a program. It also needs to be tested umpteen times. Most of the time, you first make something where you think, “I could travel well with that”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the patient can also travel well with it. 

In putting together my own programs, I’ve noticed that it’s really an art. It’s actually a composition, because of course the sequence also has to be coherent, that there’s a beginning and a development, then at some point there’s a dramatic climax and of course you have to be led out again so that you land well. 

Where a musical climax is intended and how challenging that climax is for the patient, also depends on the patient’s resilience. In case someone is very vulnerable and could easily decompensate or freak out, I wouldn’t take something very challenging, but rather make the session gentle. You need a series of sessions, of course. It’s not like you come into one therapy session and then everything is healed. It’s a process.


Music doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Brigitta Bertoia has reported how different the images were that the sounds of one of her husband Harry’s chime instruments evoked in visitors. Nuns thought of church bells and heavenly music, nature lovers thought of the ocean, rustling leaves or whale songs, and soldiers thought of jets, bombs and the sounds of war. How do you deal with such different perceptions?


The preliminary conversation and the musical biography are quite important. For a traumatized soldier who knows war cries and siren sounds, such sounds would not be suitable for a deep journey. Depending on what you have experienced, you add your own images to the music. Like when you have a dream at night and the alarm clock rings – you still integrate that into your dream as if it fits it. 

And it’s the same with GIM: You listen to the music and pick out what belongs to you, and probably also to what you might not like to be aware of. And that’s why it’s so important to talk to each other during a listening session. Let’s say the soldier says, “That’s terrible, that reminds me of war now,” I would ask, “What can you do?” He might say, “I want this to stop.” If the music threatens to overwhelm him, I might turn it off, or I might ask, “Is there anything that can help you?” Because behind that is also the experience, “I don’t really want to be forced into war. I don’t want this racket, this siren, where I have to be ready to obey”. There are strong feelings in there.

It happens frequently that you encounter angels on a journey, or fairies and dwarves, beings from another world.


So music becomes a trigger to act out such negative feelings?


Acting out negative feelings sounds so positive. It is more how to endure something, how to process it, how to deal with it. If you offer trauma therapy, for example, you first stabilize the patient, and then at some point, when the patient feels strong enough, there’s a trauma confrontation. But you have to go the way step by step. You can’t just say that the patient needs not be afraid anymore. He has the fear and he has to confront it – and it’s the same with music, and that’s the crucial thing: You converse during the programs, which are between twenty and forty minutes.  The soldier may use the music to project his aggression or defence into the music, but he will have to find out about the deeper existential feelings.  


What do listeners experience in the music that is offered during that process?


Such sessions usually start with nature images. One enters another, more inner realm – and for me, that also includes the spiritual. It happens frequently that you encounter angels on a journey, or fairies and dwarves, beings from another world, elves and even deceased. 

But this has nothing to do with the belief in reincarnation. If someone believes something has to do with a past life, I have nothing against that, but I prefer to see what it has to do with the present. We don’t really know. But we live here and now, and that’s what it’s all about.


Are the elves e.g. already intended in the music or are they attributed to the music by the listeners?


The music is neutral. Igor Stravinsky once said that the music has no meaning, we put the meaning into it. Even people who have never had anything to do with angels or elves, experience that they appear in the imagery. This has to do with the fact that we live in a culture where you see pictures and sculptures of angels in every church. And if I had grown up with an indigenous background, there would probably be some spiritual beings present for me. If I look at music just from the notes, it doesn’t say anything. We put the meaning into it, and each person a little bit differently.

By digitizing your music collection and working with the archive, you’ve treated yourself, that’s for sure!


What other role can music play? For well-being, for example?


Music can activate, that you feel a bit more alive, but of course it can also help to relax. I can take meditative music and give an induction: “Feel yourself sitting there, go through your body, let your breath deepen, observe the music coming and enjoy it, breathe with the music” – of course, that’s very relaxing. People can also take relaxing music home that they can listen to there. 

You’ve done it that way yourself, by digitizing your music collection and working with the archive. That is a receptive method. You’ve treated yourself, that’s for sure. How do you actually make your programs?


I noticed some parallels during our conversation, although I pursue a different goal with my mixes. I’m interested in a kind of artistic historiography based on themes of experimental music of the past 110 years, like e.g.: Where did R. Murray Schafer’s thoughts of conscious listening manifest themselves in field recordings? What are sonic results related to the do-it-yourself spirit? What was going on in West Germany in the early Eighties? Or in Japan or New York City? Or: How finely can the idea of ambient music be resolved?

I outline such topics with usually ten pieces that cover as many aspects as possible. As far as the dramaturgy of these mixes is concerned, everything else is subordinate to the narrative flow for me – even when important aspects of content sometimes fall by the wayside. Like you, it is important to me that the pieces are as pictorial and lively as possible – on top, they should have opened up new musical territory.

This approach has been refined by doing. And although I have music from over 10,000 releases in my archive, it’s really hard to find the pieces that fit together.

Do you have an explanation for why listening to music is so important to me that I’ve been doing it intensively for 40 years and can’t imagine anything better than continuing to find ways through music history and presenting them as a DJ?

Music does not devalue anyone. It understands you or you feel understood by it and therefore it supports your creativity. 


Music is neutral. It does not devalue anyone. It understands you or you feel understood by it and therefore it supports (and not demands!!!) your creativity. Possibly there was no one in your biography who was really on your side. Sometimes music is the parent one didn’t have.


One last question: Why is music actually so important for us humans?


The ear is the first sense organ that we develop, already during pregnancy – and it’s the last to go, the sense of hearing dies last. It’s incredibly important. Music brings people together. When a person goes deaf, it’s more difficult than when he goes blind. When you go blind, you can still hear what is happening, you can communicate. The deaf person sees everything, but is separated from everything. 

In the German language, to belong (gehören) derives from hearing (hören)… I belong to someone – that’s always the relationship. So music is relationship. With music we are engaged with something and somebody. 


Although we take different approaches, there are some parallels between GIM’s receptive music therapy programs and my own mixes for Sounds Central.

While GIM’s music selections aim to facilitate encounters with the self, for me the engagement with other people’s personalities through their art, i.e. sound spaces developed by them – beyond the mere experience of sound or music – is an important factor.

The idea that the criteria employed during the search for such pieces might be related to my own experiences was new to me – and has brought me into contact with an additional aspect of sound. The thought that traumatic listening experiences from childhood probably still have an influence on my current ways of listening – even beyond immediate reactions triggered by misophonia – was also new to me.

My realization, amplified by reading R. Murray Schafer and consolidated, even expanded in conversation with Prof. Frohne-Hagemann, is: conscious listening is an important prerequisite for tracing phenomena connected with sound. Such a way of listening helps not only to understand cultural-historical developments, but also to trace one’s own trauma.