Book Review – Wheeler (2016)

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Wheeler, B. L. (Ed.). (2016). Music therapy handbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.


Reviewer: Ruth James
MMusTher (Hons), MEd Psych, PGDip EPP, MNZPsS,
NZ RMTh, Registered Educational Psychologist
Community Autism Services, IDEA Services Wellington


I was excited to be approached about writing this review, as I thought it would be a good way to refresh my knowledge and understanding of music therapy.

I had high expectations for this handbook when I discovered that it was edited by Barbara Wheeler, as I valued the Clinical training guide for the student music therapist (Wheeler, Shultis, & Polen, 2005).

The Music therapy handbook, however, is different from the Clinical training guide. I view the Clinical training guide as a simple and practical book that can guide students and beginning music therapists in the way they plan and deliver music therapy. In contrast, I think this handbook would be better treated as a reference book. It is over 500 pages long, with 37 chapters. There are 53 contributors, and I was pleased to see that there were contributors from a range of countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The book is divided into three parts: overview and issues, orientations and approaches, and clinical applications.

Part I comprises 10 chapters covering the history and foundations of music therapy, how music is processed in the brain, music therapy methods, and consideration of important issues such as cultural diversity, ethics, developing rigorous assessments, growing the body of research, and providing evidence-based treatment. I was a little disappointed that the first chapter, focusing on music therapy as a profession, only includes two paragraphs on the international scope of music therapy. Additionally, some of the information focuses on United States legislation, while survey data on work settings and client groups is also limited to music therapists from the United States.

Some of the highlights from this part of the book include diagrams to show brain processes involved in perceiving music, and a table identifying a range of different assessment tools drawn from music therapy literature. There is also a table that identifies systematic reviews and meta-analyses published up to 2012. I am aware that there have been some important systematic reviews published since then, such as an updated Cochrane review on music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder (Geretsegger, Elefant, Mössler, & Gold, 2014). Nevertheless, I think this table could be a useful resource to quickly identify sources of research evidence for music therapy for various clinical populations.

Part II of the handbook, “Orientations and approaches”, also has 10 chapters. The first four are concerned with theoretical orientations, including psychodynamic approaches, humanistic approaches, cognitive-behavioural approaches, and developmental approaches. They discuss the history of these approaches, theoretical tenets, and their applications in music therapy. The rest of Part II is concerned with specific music therapy models and approaches, including Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy, the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, Analytical Music Therapy, Neurologic Music Therapy, Community Music Therapy, and Music Therapy in Expressive Arts. Many of these chapters feature short clinical case examples, which are an engaging way to demonstrate each approach in action. The chapter on Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy refers to specific musical excerpts, which are available as an audio download.

I was disappointed that there was not a chapter on the Benenzon model of music therapy (Wheeler et al., 2012), even though it was acknowledged that this is an influential model in Latin America and parts of southern Europe. I felt that the inclusion of this approach could have helped to increase the scope and relevance of this handbook for music therapists outside of North America.

The third part of the handbook, clinical applications, is the largest, with 17 chapters. This part is divided into three sections covering music therapy for children and adolescents, music therapy for adults, and medical music therapy. Most of these chapters include descriptions of clientele, clinical work, case examples and applications to other disciplines.

Section A, “Music therapy for children and adolescents”, covers developmental issues; intellectual disability; autism spectrum, speech and language disorders; sensory impairments; and music therapy in school settings. There are some lovely case examples, especially in the chapters on sensory impairments and on music therapy in schools, showing how music therapy can be taken into the wider school environment. There are also practical tips for making music meaningful for young children with developmental disabilities, and activity and song suggestions for working with children with speech and language difficulties.

The second section focuses on music therapy for adults. It includes working with adults with mental illness or addictions, older adults, women survivors of domestic violence, survivors of traumatic events, and addressing grief and loss. The inclusion of a chapter on working with women survivors of domestic abuse highlights this emerging area of clinical practice and the development of a feminist music therapy approach. In the chapter on grief and loss, there are examples of specific songs written by the music therapist for use in these settings. The chapter on survivors of traumatic events discusses the impact of a large earthquake in California, and I couldn’t help but think of the relevance for music therapists in Christchurch.

The third section is concerned with medical music therapy. There are informative case examples in the chapter on neonatal music therapy, and examples of hospital referral criteria and pain rating scales in the chapter on medical music therapy for children. Additional chapters focus on medical music therapy for adults, music therapy for adults with traumatic brain injury or other neurological disorders, and music therapy at the end of life. Tables showing various music therapy methods and goal areas in palliative care are included in the final chapter.

The book ends at the conclusion of Chapter 37, music therapy at the end of life. It felt like an abrupt end to me, and I would have liked to see an overall conclusion from the editor to provide cohesion among all of the different parts, sections and chapters, and give a sense of completeness. However, overall, I think this book is a wonderful resource providing a comprehensive discussion of many aspects of music therapy, and I would recommend it to music therapy students, music therapists, and other interested professionals.


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