POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
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Inclusion and Empowerment in Music Therapy Research

Published on Jan 29, 2020 by Jason Noone

This article describes concepts from doctoral research on the applications of mainstream music technology for creative music making by people with disabilities within a person-centred music therapy context. Participatory action research (PAR) was employed, engaging participants as co-researchers with full control over the research process (Bradbury 2015). Improvised music was considered the primary meaning-making modality optimising voice and agency of the co-researchers. Rhizoanalysis was conducted to identify immanent meaningful moments within the research process while maintaining a participatory perspective (Ringrose and Colman 2013). Tacit, embodied, and multiple knowings (Reason and Heron 2008) were implicated throughout the research process.


This article discusses doctoral research conducted with people with disabilities into the applications of music technology for creative music making. Concepts of embodied, or tacit knowledge permeated this research and enabled the generation of local knowledge by co-researchers using methods that prioritised creativity and collaboration. These concepts allowed music making itself, and thus each co-researchers’ musical identity and expression, to influence and direct the research process as the essential meaning-making modality of the research process. This reflected the collaborative and improvisation-based nature of the music therapy context that gave rise to the research. As well as being empowering and inclusive, these methods offered a nuanced, ethical and naturalistic way to engage in practitioner research in music therapy (Noone 2018).


The doctoral research project, supervised by Professor Jane Edwards and Dr Sandra Joyce, arose out of music therapy work at two Enable Ireland Adult facilities, providing services for people with disabilities throughout the Mid-West.

The developmental community music therapy approach employed is consistent with the person-centred, empowerment-based ethos of Enable Ireland (Noone 2008). The role of technology in enhancing quality of life for people with disabilities is a core strategy of the organisation that has influenced my therapeutic work (Enable Ireland 2015; Noone 2018).

Music technology is used in the music therapy programme at Enable Ireland to enhance access to music-making for people with disabilities, for whom more traditional instruments can be difficult to play (Noone 2018). Resources include MIDI controllers, hand-held devices and apps, electric guitars among other devices integrated through the digital audio software Ableton Live.  Unique combinations of hardware and software have made it possible to individualise digital musical interfaces for service users of diverse cognitive and physical functioning. This supports and facilitates tacit musicality and spontaneous musical expression, thereby enhancing the music therapy process, especially for improvisational approaches (Noone 2018).

Music Therapy and Tacit Musicality

The human capacity for active, relational participation in music - or musicing (Small 1998) - has been suggested to be rooted in an intrinsic musicality or communicative musicality present in early infancy, demonstrated by the reciprocal and flexible attunement between child and caregiver, through vitality affects – innate knowings in terms of time, intensity, shape, contour and duration (Stern 2000). This, in turn, founds the basis of human communication and emotional interaction throughout the lifespan (Trevarthen and Malloch 2000) and underlies both formal and informal music making (Pavlicevic 2003).

Accessing or enhancing a person’s tacit musicality is the core of some approaches to music therapy (Boxill 1985; Nordoff and Robbins 1971; Procter 2011; Trevarthen and Malloch 2000), especially with people with disabilities, where dormant musicality can be impaired or obstructed (Dimitriadis and Smeijsters 2011; Pavlicevic 2003). When this capacity for non-verbal emotional interaction is disrupted or absent, musical communication in music therapy can support the rhythms and gestures central to human communication, thus building and supporting relationships (Pavlicevic 2003).

Within community music therapy, a primary concern is for therapy to be “more relevant to the actual social life of the clients and specifically his/hers partaking in the society at large” (Ruud 2004, para. 3). This involves the cultivation of musical communities of practice (Ansdell 2010) reflecting the musical identities of those taking part while supporting a feeling of belonging together (Ansdell 2010).

In a “circumstantial community” like Enable Ireland (Ansdell 2004, p.77), developing as a musical community has been empowering for service users as new relationships are developed and as social capital is mobilised through individual and group musicing (Procter 2011).

Research Development

This research study sought to investigate the role of music technology in supporting tacit musicality and improvised musicing in a group setting. Participatory Action Research (PAR) was chosen for its collaborative and emancipatory character (Boog 2010), to reflect the collaborative applications of electronic music technologies (EMTs) (Magee 2014) within the music therapy programme at Enable Ireland.

PAR involves iterative cycles of planning, action and reflection by a community of inquiry with the involvement of a lead researcher, who may access the community from outside, or, in my case, be an insider-researcher or practitioner-researcher (Baines et al. 2014). PAR has a long history and has come to be most associated with marginalised populations and non-traditional research settings (Brydon-Miller et al. 2011, p. 388). This contextually sensitive, ground-up research seeks indigenous knowledge (Wicks et al. 2008). As such, this is research “with people, not on people” (McTaggart 1997). This is further affirmed using the participatory inquiry paradigm as an epistemological frame.

PAR and Tacit Knowledge

Action research with a participatory worldview asserts multiple ways of knowing (Seeley and Reason 2008). These ways of knowing constitute “the manifold of our subjectivity” (Reason and Heron 1997, p. 6). This has been described as the participatory inquiry paradigm or PIP (Reason and Heron 1997).

The PIP has been related to Polanyi’s (1962) idea of tacit knowledge as a form of embodied knowledge that underpins all cognitive action (cited in Reason 2006; Heron and Reason 2008). This tacit knowledge can be manifest, pre-verbal and often difficult to access (Reason 2006; Seeley and Reason 2008). The four ways of knowing are:

1) Experiential Knowing. All knowing is grounded in the experiential presence of persons. It involves direct experience with people, places or things and as such is tacit and pre-verbal (Heron and Reason 2008).

2) Presentational knowing. This involves forms or images that articulate experiential knowing in a communicable way. This may be non-discursive forms (visual arts, music, dance and movement) or discursive forms (poetry, drama, stories) (Heron and Reason 2008).

3) Propositional Knowing. This is knowing about something, where ideas, theories or concepts are expressed in statements or as facts. Traditional research tends to treat propositional knowing as the dominant form of knowing, or a ‘regime of truth’ describing reality (Heron and Reason 2008). 

4) Practical knowing. This is how to engage in a class of action or practice (Heron and Reason 2008). It is evidenced by skills or competencies developed within the inquiry process, through transformative actions (Heron and Reason 2008). Skills and behaviours developed by participants during the inquiry can be considered practical knowing outcomes (Heron and Reason 2008).

The predominance of propositional knowing in health and social science research can marginalise so-called vulnerable populations (Conrad and Campbell 2008). The PIP creates space for people to articulate their world in the face of structures that silence them, opening the research process to different realities or ways of telling stories (Reason 2006). Participative forms of inquiry are therefore concerned not only with direct benefit but also with empowering people through the practice of constructing and using their own knowledge (Reason and Riley 2008).

The adoption of the PIP in this research was intended to support diverse participants from the Enable Ireland services to contribute meaningfully to many or all levels of the research process. This potential was maximised when music making itself (as presentational/practical knowing) was the main medium for knowledge generation (Kramer-Roy 2015).

This arts-based approach to PAR would allow communities of practice to develop into communities of inquiry in a person centred, inclusive and naturalistic manner (Reason 2006).

The PAR Projects

Independent PAR groups were initiated in Limerick and in Ennis. Between 2013 and 2014, each group, or community of inquiry (Reason and Heron 2001), engaged in three PAR cycles. A guiding question, “how does music technology help us to make music together?”, was developed by the groups. Responses were developed into thematic concerns relevant to the interests, preferences and capacities of participants (McTaggart 1997). The evolving goal was “to show what we can do” with music technology.

Each group met weekly to explore the available music technology resources through improvised musicing. New devices were introduced and incorporated along the way. Sessions consisted of a micro-cycle format of recap/set-up, musicing and review, corresponding to the broader planning/action/reflection format of the broader PAR methodology.

The co-researchers shared their learning in different public fora, including lectures, workshops, and performances. The extended epistemology of the PIP was integral in optimising voice and participation of the functionally diverse co-researchers. Co-researchers were thus facilitated to generate and mobilise experiential, intuitive, artistic and skill-based knowledge, as well as the more dominant verbal form (Bradbury 2015).

Data collection involved video recording of sessions and the saving of project files on the digital audio software (Ableton Live), resulting in over 80 hours of video and music recordings. Some inductive coding of video material was conducted (Altrichter, Feldman, Posch and Somekh, 2008) and recordings were reviewed and annotated for a potential arts-based response (Ledger and Edwards 2011). The pace and iterativity of the PAR projects meant that these were only partially completed, though certain themes were developed and incorporated into the PAR cycles. These included themes of chaos vs. coherence, talk vs. action, pride and ownership, and humour.

The notion of immanence recurred through group reflections and tentative ABR reflections. The co-researchers and I felt that the value of the recordings would be diminished through analysis, processing or manipulation.

In the words of a participant – I was encouraged to “let the music do the talking”.

This work, and the reflections of the PAR groups, were conceptualised as proto-analytical – meaningful, though partial and incomplete. This is not uncommon in PAR. In terms of the participatory inquiry paradigm, this research would qualify as Dionysian – tacit, improvisatory, imaginal, spiralling and diffuse (Reason and Heron 2001). This presented challenges in terms of unifying the action strand with the thesis strand of the project (McTaggart 1997).

Rhizomatic Thinking

Resolving the work of the PAR groups appropriately into a report/thesis required an approach that would highlight the tacit and embodied knowledge of the co-researchers. This involved positioning the improvisations in the weekly research sessions as the essential meaning making process of the research and the main modality of interaction for the co-researchers. A rhizomatic analysis approach, based on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome (1989) was developed to incorporate insights from the PAR process that favoured an immanent perspective on the multimodal knowledge generated from week-to-week, and, as previously mentioned, “let the music do the talking”. 

Rhizome Theory and Rhizoanalysis

The rhizome is a biological metaphor for knowledge that “conceives how every thing and every body – all aspects of concrete, abstract and virtual entities and activities – can be seen as multiple in their inter-relational movements with other things and bodies” (Colman 2010, p.232). Deleuze and Guattari outlined six principles that characterise a rhizome and support rhizomatic reading or analysis – connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, principle of a-signifying rupture, cartography and decalcomania (1989). A rhizome is never fixed, but instead is always becoming-other through the freeing up of fixed relations (deterritorialisation) and the establishment of new relations (reterritorialisation) within the rhizome assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari 1989).

Rhizoanalysis is a qualitative research method used to present data using rhizomatic principles. Rhizoanalysis is “about making connections—connecting and mapping the data immanently” (D’Adamo-Damery 2015, p.118).  This is considered useful in accounting for mess, creativity, open-endedness and performativity in research (Ringrose and Coleman, 2013). Rhizoanalysis has been described as a “(non)method” with a non-hierarchical and non-linear perspective (Masny 2015; Masny and Waterhouse 2011). This method tends to focus on “becomings”, or “creative and affective movements that cannot be predicted by available types and resources” (Leander and Rowe 2006, p.432).

The “minoritarian” nature of rhizoanalysis – that it is fluid and grounded in creative action, as opposed to well-defined, concrete and rigidly imposed steps – resonated with the emancipatory, adaptive and postmodern position of the PAR methodology we employed (Colebrook 2002; Drummond and Themessl-Huber 2007). The incorporations of multiple knowings (Wood and Ferlie 2003) and an arts-based research perspective (Beyes and Stayaert 2011; Smith 2015) strengthen this connection.

Conducting the Rhizoanalysis

Events were identified within the group’s research recordings involving the overlap and interaction of multiple factors - musical, technical, behavioural/paraverbal, verbal and conceptual (Amorim and Ryan 2005). These were read according to rhizomatic questions to determine relevant factors of “becoming-musician” through contact with music technology (MacNaughton 2008). The readings led to reflections on the isomorphism between digital music interfaces and traditional instruments, the role of affective synchrony in group musicing, rhizomatic awareness in facilitation, and the tension/balance between effort and user fit when using technology.

Broadly speaking, the readings suggested that the main benefit of music technology for the co-researchers was the modular nature of its functions and affordances.

That is, the co-researchers’ process of becoming-musician together was facilitated by the ease by which music and musical parameters could be deterritorialised (disrupted or broken) and reterritorialised (rearranged or recombined) in real-time to suit each person’s preferences and identity and support tacit musicality. 

While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into more detail of the readings – which consisted of curated video clips accompanied by a rhizomatic vignette – one clip is presented with this article as well as an edited version of the vignette. This will hopefully demonstrate how the rhizomatic analysis facilitated the articulation of tacit and embodied knowledge generated through PAR process.


Participatory action research supplemented by arts-based methods and rhizomatic analysis offered distinctive ways to engage functionally diverse co-researchers in the generation of multimodal indigenous knowledge about the use of music technology within music therapy. This was possible through the positioning of musicing as the primary research modality, thus engaging tacit musicality and multiple knowings. These methods also facilitated the development of distinctive methods of curating and presenting that knowledge. Practitioners working in similar contexts may find these methods useful in investigating aspects of practice that are tacit, emergent, performative or non-propositional.

Rhizomatic Event – Coming Together

The event presented here involved the Ennis group establishing a groove while improvising together. This was facilitated through moment-to-moment adaptation and reconfiguration of DMI interfaces during the musicing – the deterritorialisation of musical parameters, and reterritorializing into unique interfaces. This created a sense of novelty and spontaneity that energised the group. Facilitating this required ongoing awareness of the heterogenous elements of the event – musical, affective, technological and relational – termed within the analysis as rhizomatic awareness. The balance between user effort and interface fit is also considered a factor in the becoming-musician of each group member during this event.

The idiosyncratic digital music interfaces of the musicians involved cognitive, physical/ergonomic and aesthetic/expressive components that were highly varied. Jonathon used a MIDI drum controller, to play a melody; Gerard played a piano sound with a guitar-shaped video game controller, adding distortion effects within the audio software not typically used for piano. Chime used a MIDI keyboard with an arpeggiator effect to create sustained rhythmic percussion. Paraic chose a sustained ambient sound configured to respond to minimal pressure on his MIDI keyboard.

The putative rhizomatic awareness required for facilitation and the consequent balancing of the heterogeneous elements of the session are inseparable from the awareness and agency of the participants. The affective engagement of each participant energised the connections and gave the technological/musical/relational environment meaning. This was negotiated on a moment-to-moment basis, with no certain outcome aimed for, though not a matter of chance either.

Improvised music is inherently rhizomatic, sending out lines of flight (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988), where possibilities for connection are actualised. This required attention and responsiveness from the musicians to sustain and develop the connections. The process of becoming-musician was thus shared by all in the group, including myself as facilitator, deterritorialising the expert/non-expert dichotomy that Reason and Heron’s notion of hierarchy sought to address within participatory action research (1997).

Jason Noone

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Jason Noone, PhD, is a qualified music therapist working mainly in the field of developmental disability. He specialises in developing collaborative applications of music technology with people with developmental disabilities to enhance access to music making. He completed his doctoral research in 2018, in which participatory and rhizomatic methods were used to explore these applications in a person-centred, emancipatory manner.


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