Beyond words- using music to create new patterns of relating

Are you and your partner or child struggling to communicate? 

Have you ever had the experience of trying hard to express your love and concern, or alternatively your frustration and despair - but instead of understanding, your loved one reacts to the way you have expressed your pain, rather than being able to get the underlying message you are trying to get across?

Most of what we communicate to others is non-verbal - our tone of voice, our body language, the expression on our face. Yet so often we believe that our only tools for repairing relational distress are our words. This doesn't make a lot of sense!

Music can help you and your loved ones connect by working directly with the non-verbal elements of what needs to be expressed and received. You might try using existing pieces of music to provide an emotional script or template for positive relating - for example, singing a lullaby to your little one. You may also use music as a resource to develop the building blocks for expressing and responding to emotions, that you can then improvise with in your daily interactions.

While not by any means an exhaustive list, here are some of the ways music can help you re-pattern unhelpful ways of relating.

Call and Response.

One of the most ancient forms of musical expression  is 'call and response' - I make a sound (with my voice, my body, or on an instrument) and someone else responds. They may repeat back the sound I have made, they may repeat my sound and then extend it to include some new sounds, or they might simply respond with different sounds that provide a musical 'answer' to my 'call'.

Each of these exchanges mirror the basic interactional processes that happen between infants and their parents, between parents and children, between adult and adult, and even animal to human or animal to animal! They are fundamental patterns of relating that help us to feel securely attached to those we depend on for nurturing and support. When you answer me with my sound I know you have heard me and I feel calmer. When you answer with my sound and then extend it, I can feel not only that you have heard me but you are interested enough to engage in a dialogue about what I have to say. When you musically 'answer'  my call, I know you are there for me. As the renowned relationship researcher John Gottman has found in his extensive research about what constitutes healthy relating, you have 'turned toward' me in that moment and I feel connected and loved.

Sometimes our 'call and response' patterning has become out of synch - perhaps because of unhealthy patterns of relating we have experienced early in life,  or in response to relational wounds we have experienced as the result of abuse, neglect or other trauma. Repatterning these core structures is best done without words, at least to start with. Try using your voice as an instrument, or 'talking' together with a drum. 


A fundamental element of music is rhythm. When we communicate, we establish a rhythm together. Couples and families develop their own rhythm that works for them. It may be slow, quick, or moving from one to the other. Where different family members get out of rhythm with each other, the result can be jarring! Musical exercises to re-establish a cohesive rhythm together might include - one person starts a rhythm (you can do this by clapping, using your voice, stamping, using an instrument...) and others join in. Make sure that you swap turns - experiment with allowing your children, for example, to set the rhythm.

This simple exercise can not only re-establish cohesion, but also provide a safe way to play with and possibly challenge existing power dynamics in relationships. What happens if I lead and you follow? What happens when we reverse that? Is it OK to allow our teenager to have the experience of taking the lead sometimes? How can we support him to step more confidently into taking the lead, while providing boundaries and limits where needed? We may need to learn a new instrument to support him adequately!

Being in tune.

Have you ever been to a concert featuring an orchestra, or a band with acoustic instruments? Musicians spend the first few minutes adjusting their instruments to ensure they are playing at the same pitch as others in the group. If they don't do that, they may all be playing the same note, but it won't sound the same! This also can happen in relationships - if we don't take the time to tune into what the other is trying to express, we'll be forever off-key, and not able to connect with each other. If you experience your loved ones as not being 'in tune' with your feelings and needs, or hear from them that they are experiencing you this way, you may need to work on developing the listening skills necessary to hear when you are 'out of tune'. You may try singing a note and asking your partner/family member to match that note. Make sure you swap turns! Think about what it is like to have somone tune into you, or to be experienced by your loved one as skillful at tuning into them! If you are unable to hear when you are out of tune, you may need some coaching to help you develop this.


Music is characterized by variations in volume - loud, soft, or moving from one to the other. When we communicate the volume of our voice is as important as the tone. Sometimes it is helpful to match the volume of your child or partner, if your aim is to connect with them and convey you wish to truly be with what they are expressing to you. At other times you might need a soft response from your loved one to help you calm down. A louder, more animated response to a depressed or emotionally shut-down person may help them to shift their emotional state. Musical ways of exploring these 'relational dynamics' can be a fun and safe way of experimenting with what works - try a range of different 'volumes' in your response to your loved one. It's important that their reaction is your guide to what's most helpful to them!


In music, harmony is provided to support and enrich a melody. In many musical traditions, disharmony is included as part of creating a musical experience of tension followed by resolution, or sometimes challenging the listener to sit with no resolution (i.e. we are left with a sound that feels unresolved). When disharmony exists in couples and families, you may explore this musically in a number of ways. For example, one person may hold a sound while another holds first a dis-harmonious sound, then changes it to one that is 'in harmony' with the first sound. People who find this difficult may be those who struggle to be flexible and accept influence from their partner or other family member. Experiment with what it feels like to hold a dissonant sound against your partner or child's sound. People who may benefit from this the most are those who perhaps struggle to be assertive, or to 'hold their ground' in keeping to their views in the face of opposition. Work on the one that feels most challenging for you!


This is where two or more melodies are happening at once, weaving in and around each other. Where a composer has written counterpoint skillfully, the melodies can be alternately supportive, challenging, or complementary. It's more than a conversation - each are happening simultaneously! In relationships, we may experience this as being in flow - at times you are supporting my melody, at others your melody is separate, but complementing mine, at other times your melody challenges mine and I may make the choice to modify mine or not in response. When this is not done skilfully, or we are out of flow - it can feel like everyone's talking, but no-one's listening! Working on creating a flowing contrapuntal piece of music together is like building a shared story together without the words - it's the underlying feeling and shape of the story. This process is best facilitated by a 'composer-in residence' (or skilled music therapist!) to help you as a couple or family create a shared experience of how you would like your emotional life together to flow.


There are many ways music can help us to either reinstate cohesion and a sense of being securely connected to each other, or to challenge unhelpful ways of relating and reconfigure new patterns. Words can always be added later - the melody or rhythm can then become a song!

Happy relationship music-making!


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