A Tribute to Mary PriestleyPosted on: Friday, 15 December 2017

Mary Priestley, Pioneer Music Therapist and Writer (1925-2017

From: Sarah Hoskyns, Associate Professor and Director of Master of Music Therapy Programme, New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī

I am very sad to announce that Mary Priestley, a music therapist with great international influence, who developed significant theory and practice in analytical music therapy, has died in June 2017. I am honoured to provide this tribute to Mary, who trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1969 and provided periodic teaching and supervision to the programme, while I was involved there both as a student and lecturer during the 1980s and 90s. We also shared a music therapy practice setting – the Inner London Probation Service Day Training Centre – where Mary worked alongside Peter Wright and Marjorie Wardle for a few years before me. I visited Mary’s home with varied colleagues a few times in the 1990s, and she was a warm, quirky and humorous host. Dr Morva Croxson attended a clinical placement at St Bernard’s Hospital, London in 1984, with Mary as one of the supervisors, while I was a tutor at Guildhall. Morva and I reflected warmly on our joint recollections of Mary’s work at that time in a recent conversation. Keynote speaker at the August 2017 Music Therapy New Zealand Symposium, Dr Diane Austin also has observed how formative Mary’s ideas were to her when she was developing her understanding of music therapy practice, specialising in vocal psychotherapy.

Mary was born in 1925 and was the daughter of Jane Lewis, and the English writer and playwright J.B. Priestley. In her early years of her education, Mary developed as a very keen artist and writer as well as a violinist, and her early work included being an illustrative researcher for a book on Benjamin Britten, playing in a professional string quartet and being a copy writer for the travel firm, Thomas Cooke. She was married for seven years to Danish violinist, Sigvald Michelsen, living in Denmark during that period, and had three sons (twins, and a younger son David).

Mary is an important writer in our field and was way ahead of her time.  She was developing thinking about the ideas of Jung, Klein and Freud in relation to music therapy before it was in-vogue to do so in the UK, and her influential books Music Therapy in Action (1975; 2012) and Essays in Analytical Music Therapy (1994) were republished by Professor Kenneth Bruscia and Barcelona Publishers in recent years, when the international field had caught up with her ideas. In 1999, at the Ninth World Congress of Music Therapy, Analytical Music Therapy (and Mary’s contribution) was honoured as one of the five major acknowledged approaches in the international field. Professor Susan Hadley’s doctoral research explored a narrative analysis of the life and works of Clive Robbins and Mary Priestley (Hadley, 1998; 2001) and Hadley and Bruscia have done much to remind us about Mary’s innovative place in our discipline. Professor Bruscia initiated an archive of Mary’s writings, case notes and recordings at Temple University, Philadelphia, such was his respect for her work.

I remember as a student being quite puzzled by Mary’s explanation in a lecture, of transference and countertransference in music and – to be honest – at the time I thought it was rather far-fetched. However it was interesting returning to her writing a few years later in the 1980s when I had gained more experience with people with mental health challenges. I found her explanation for example of Jung’s concept of the (bright) shadow, for people with long history of psychiatric illness, and her reflections on the wounded healer and understanding the transference relationship both moving and insightful when I was less naïve about clinical practice.  Music Therapy in Action was one of my first readings as an aspiring student in 1979, and it was very accessible, personal, and conceptually clear, and deeply interesting to me as a novice. She was gifted as a writer in inspiring and engaging the reader.

In an interview with Professor Leslie Bunt for the Voices Journal in 2004, Mary shared many insights about her life, and her passion for the field.  She was also frank and open about her own journey with mental illness and the support she had received from her analysts, Dr Gerald Wooster and Dr Joe Redfearn. She talked about family, inspiration, her music therapy work and the importance of the arts in her development. I recommend readers to Leslie Bunt’s warm and respectful conversation, and to Sue Hadley’s article in the Nordic Journal if they would like to know more about Mary and her work. Interestingly – in the continued tradition of being ahead of her time – Mary observed her concern, in the 2004 Voices interview, to preserve the “art” of music therapy:

“When I started I was an artist and I worked as an artist. I think now that the music therapist is asked more to be a scientist. It is more technical and intellectual now, more research. More therapists are becoming doctors of this and that. And videos of work and things like that. It’s a change and I feel slightly uneasy about that. I don’t think the artist should be lost.” (Bunt, 2004)

I think Mary would be pleased and satisfied at the recent surge of interest in arts-based research in music therapy, and that her values and principles as a teacher, supervisor, therapist and writer will be honoured and continued by those who follow her. Rest in peace Mary, and sincere thanks are due to you for your vision, artistic integrity and commitment to the music therapy field.


Bunt, L. (2004). Mary Priestley interviewed by Leslie Bunt. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 4(2). doi:10.15845/voices.v4i2.180