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Observations placeholder

The Music Child



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

The Music Therapy Profession in Modern Britain – Dr Helen Tyler [in Music as Medicine]

Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins  began their collaboration in 1959, when they met by chance in a school where Robbins (b. 1925) was a teacher of children with special needs. Nordoff (1909-76), an American composer, pianist and gifted improviser, was visiting the school to give a recital to the staff. The school, at Sunfield Children's Home in Worcestershire, England, was run on the principles laid down by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, according to which great emphasis was put on the importance and relevance of music and the other arts in the lives of all people, even the most severely damaged. Nordoff was persuaded by Dr Herbert Geuter, a psychologist running a research programme at the school, to stay on and work experimentally with the children, using improvisation to draw them into a relationship and assessing what improvements could be brought about in their conditions. Robbins, who had a particular interest in using music with his pupils, became his partner in the ensuing research project.

In the period from 1959 to 1960, Nordoff and Robbins worked with both individuals and groups of children with a wide range of needs, disabilities and impairments. In the initial sessions, each child was brought to the music room and was given simple percussion instruments to play such as drum, cymbal, tambourine and bells. While Robbins facilitated or encouraged the child's participation, Nordoff improvised at the piano and with his voice, reflecting and responding to whatever sounds and reactions the child made, whether it was playing, dancing and singing or screaming, crying and rocking.

The sessions were all audio-recorded and the results analysed, so that the development of the relationship through the musical participation could be monitored. After this early work Nordoff and Robbins wrote:

The children were making musical self-portraits of themselves in the way they were reacting. Each was different and it was becoming obvious that there must be a connection between the individual's pathology, personality, psychological condition and the musical self-portrait he or she revealed.

Their approach was based on the premise that there is an innate responsiveness to music that remains unimpaired despite even the most profound handicaps. Nordoff and Robbins eventually came to call this concept 'the music child':

The Music Child is the individualized musicality inborn in each child ... the universality of musical sensitivity ... and also the distinctly personal significance of each child's musical responsiveness.

The theories of the Anthroposophical movement, as propounded by Steiner, were influential on the thinking of Nordoff and Robbins at this time. The Music Child can be related to Steiner's concept of the 'astral body', which has clear roots in the classical analogy between musica humana and musica mundana. Writing about the universality of music, Steiner said: 'this is the work of the astral body which is a musician in every human being, and imitates the music of the cosmos'."

Although the work of Nordoff and Robbins was undoubtedly influenced by Steiner's philosophy and incorporated some of his musical concepts, such as the theory of intervals, they did not embrace the Anthroposophical school of music therapy. …………..

Nordoff and Robbins left Britain and continued their research as part of a team in a day-care unit for autistic children, funded by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. Here they were able to progress beyond their early diagnostic work into showing how the use of improvisational music therapy could bring about change, first in the musical relationship with the therapist and then in daily life generally. Their work was meticulously recorded on tape, and afterwards analysed and evaluated according to rating scales which they had devised. This material then formed the basis of their joint books which contain many descriptions of children's therapy sessions. In one case, a five-year-old boy, described as psychotic and autistic, unable to speak and with disturbed, volatile behaviour, found in his music therapy sessions an outlet for his distressed and frustrated feelings. Through matching his screams and body movements with music of equal intensity, Nordoff and Robbins were able to build a relationship of trust with the child. Gradually, his screaming turned to crying-singing, and his singing developed into speech, thus improving his ability to make relationships, communicate and fulfil his potential.

A second case study describes in detail the progress of therapy with an emotionally-disturbed girl, Audrey, who had been sent to live in a residential school because of her uncontrollable behaviour. The central part of her therapy was the musical re-enactment of the fairy-tale of Cinderella, in which Audrey and the therapists improvised the story and the music. Through shared improvisation, a rich and powerful musicality emerged from the troubled child, and for the first time in her life she could express her deepest fears and feelings. Aigen writes:

[Nordoff and Robbins] did not merely tell the story to Audrey but rather lived it with her. It was their ability to approach the story seriously and as a myth and with an important inherent psychological experience which allowed her to use the story as the vehicle for the resolution of an inner crisis leading to a dawning self-awareness.

The source of the experience

Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Music therapy