POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
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From Silence into a Musical Space: COVID-19 Engaged Music Listening

Published on Jan 19, 2020 by Tommy Hayes and Ian Leslie


During these difficult times, it is important to try to put things into some kind of perspective. Many people are experiencing difficulties in coping with the challenges posed by loneliness and anxiety that the Covid-19 pandemic is creating. In the meantime, however, we can search for some positivity in things that we can do now, at this moment - things that we enjoy and that can make us feel better, such as music, literature, TV or exercise.

Music, in particular, has been shown to have beneficial effects on our physical and mental health down through the ages. As humans, we exhibit an innate capacity for music. It is a phenomenon that has been a part of all cultures discovered to date.

"Music creates order out of chaos; for the rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent; melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous." Yehudi Menuhin (1972, p.9)

"In a sense the ideal listener is both inside and outside the music at the same moment ... almost like the composer at the moment he composes it. ... What the reader should strive for, then, is a more active kind of listening." Aaron Copland (1957, p.40)

Music therapy is a form of clinical intervention to promote and support physical, mental and social well-being and development. It is used with individual clients and groups of all ages, through active music-making, and/or music listening.

Ian Leslie and Tommy Hayes are senior Music Therapists/Guided Imagery and Music Psychotherapists. As a response to the current medical crisis, they considered offering something slightly different to the many (excellent) live performances given by musicians from their homes worldwide. With this in mind they have produced an experiential Music Therapy video, available for viewing on YouTube:

The video comprises a short music listening exercise, along with a simple breathing technique. The intention is to allow the participant to engage safely but deeply, with three short pieces of pre-recorded music in combination with an inward focus on the breath, in order to facilitate a deep and therapeutic listening experience.

This breathing exercise is based on changing the depth of the participant’s breathing to match up with the type of music he/she is listening to: a slightly shortened breath is taken if the music piece is gentle or slow and a longer breath if the music is more energised.

The exercise is based on a receptive Music Therapy programme initially developed as part of the overall service provided at a School for Autism in Dublin and has since been implemented at a number of facilities in Ireland and the UK. 

Preparation and Process

Receptive Music Therapy has been a growing area in this country over the past decade, through a range of techniques such as Guided Imagery and Music GIM (Bonny, 2002), Music Breathing (Korlin, 2019) and Engaged Music Listening (Leslie and Hayes, 2020). In addition, publications have been produced that have added considerably to the knowledge base (Groke and Wigram, 2007). This has added significantly to the potential ‘toolkit’ within the overall discipline of Music Therapy.

In terms of the contribution of this video exercise to the discipline of Music Therapy in the future, the production of videos such as this could assist in the overall potential development of conducting therapy sessions, where necessary and appropriate, online.

The internet as a therapeutic tool has been used sparingly to date.  While there are numerous ‘how-to’ videos on the subject of mindfulness and meditation that use music as a background, this, to our knowledge, is one of the first videos that uses music as a core element of the experience.

This music exercise is intended for general use from an online platform. It features a simplified adaptation of a receptive Music Therapy programme that was originally developed at a school for students with special needs in Dublin during 2019. The school provides an educational programme for students between the ages of 12 years to 18 years. Needs and abilities vary considerably within this population, resulting in the necessity to provide a wide range of music therapy programmes to offer the most efficient service. These follow a general theme of active music-making, with a particular emphasis on communication through improvisation in addition to receptive music exercises. 

The rationale behind the creation of a new receptive music therapy programme was to expand and enhance the existing service provided. It was created within a mindfulness framework as an aid to focus and attention, with deep engagement in the present moment.

The intention was to create a dynamic three-way interaction between therapist, music and student, through a music and mindfulness listening exercise, flexible enough to include students of all abilities, that could address fundamental areas of concern and achieve a number of identified therapeutic goals in the areas of healthy ego development (Wager, 1992, cited in Wesley, 2002).

Production of the Video

We are aware that therapists are using internet tools such as Zoom to conduct therapy sessions as a result of the circumstances that people currently find themselves in. Whilst in a ‘lockdown’ situation, the client’s needs will continue to be a priority. They may be feeling even more vulnerable and anxious due to the climate of fear that is being generated around the coronavirus, especially on the internet. A central issue that we discussed at length over the course of the time it took to produce the video was how best to provide a positive but safe experience for the people who would experience it.

With any new programme, it is imperative that participants are safe and secure in the therapy environment. This was a fundamental consideration for this exercise, where therapeutic support would not be actually present to intervene, if required, during the experience. Under normal circumstances, the therapist would be present to work with images, memories or emotion generated, as part of the therapeutic process. This exercise was not intended as a full Music Therapy programme session. For this reason, a shortened, simplified and safe version of the working programme was decided upon.

Appropriate music selection for the project was crucial. Having decided on the three pieces that they believed would work well, the authors approached The West Ocean String Quartet and Steve Cooney for permission to use music selections from their recorded repertoire. Both kindly agreed to this. The three mid-tempo compositions, in the middle sonic range, with flowing melodic and predictable harmonic progressions, were chosen to support and safely contain emotional engagement of participants during their experience.

A primary consideration for the overall aim for this project was centred around the need to offer a positive experience to a wide range of people during the current difficult situation we find ourselves in. Mindful music listening, incorporating breath-work, can assist participants in bringing attention to and ‘just being in’ the present moment. This can offer an opportunity to move away from external stresses to an inward focus, thus helping with anxiety tolerance, acting as an effective distraction and providing a positive experience in coping with overwhelming situations.

The Visual Element

When we made the decision to proceed with the project, we approached filmmaker Joske Slabbers, whom we had previously collaborated with, about joining us in our endeavour. She came on board immediately and added crucial elements to the production. While the induction to the exercise suggests that participants may close their eyes if they wish, it was necessary to offer a visual context for the music listening experience.

We discussed ideas together for thematic needs that would work most effectively for the project. From these, Joske produced imagery for the first two music selections that offered beautiful uplifting outdoor scenes, showing what we will be able to reconnect with when this medical crisis is over. The third music selection offered images of springtime and regrowth through the flowing movement of Cherry Blossom trees. These are powerful, positive images, adding extra dimensions and layers to the engagement process.

Joske then synchronised the imagery closely with the musical phrasing, tempo, dynamics, etc. This was crucial, as we believed it was imperative that neither music nor imagery took away from each other. In fact, seamlessly integrated, music and images both added significantly to the overall experience.


The video was uploaded to YouTube on Thursday 16th April 2020. Initial distribution has targeted a range of the common social media outlets along with contacts via email and texts. We will then be contacting frontline service associations and organisations. Following this, other appropriate companies and organisations, colleges and media outlets will be contacted.

Response from participants over the initial weekend of availability has been positive and, to date, the video is being utilised widely.

Tommy Hayes and Ian Leslie

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Ian Leslie, MAMT, FAMI, and Tommy Hayes, MAMT, FAMI, are both professional musicians/composers, who have been collaborating together for the past 20 years. Their music is probably best described as ‘eclectic cross-over’.

Tommy is a composer/percussionist who has performed at the highest level for many years in various genres of music. Likewise, Ian is a composer/saxophonist who has performed pretty much in every genre over a similar period.  

Both are Music Therapists & Guided Imagery and Music Psychotherapists 
They first met while studying for an MA in Music Therapy together at the University of Limerick in 2002. Since then, in addition to Music Therapy projects, they have continued to record and perform live together and have released the critically acclaimed album Almost Home.

'At First Light' is their latest single and is currently available as a free download, for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, at:


They are currently working on a receptive Music Therapy publication:

From Silence into a Musical Space: Engaged Music Listening, Working with Special Needs 


Bonny, H. (2002) Music and Consciousness. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Copland, A. (1957) What to Listen for in Music. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Grocke, D. and Wigram, T. (2007) Receptive Methods in Music Therapy: Techniques and Clinical Applications for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Korlin, D. (2019) 'Music Breathing' in K. Bruscia and D. Grocke (eds), 2nd edition, Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Leslie, I. and Hayes, T. (2020) From Silence into a Musical Space: Engaged Music Listening, Working with Special Needs. To be published 2020.

Menuhin, Y. (1972) Theme and Variations. New York: Stein and Day.

Wesley, S. (2002) 'GIM for Children and Adolescents' in K. Bruscia and D. Grocke (eds), Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.