The Full Spectrum of Music Therapy with Jessica Harris


November 2019

Interview and photos by
Frances Marshall

Share this article

After a life altering family event, music therapist Jessica Harris has been fighting tirelessly to improve access to creative arts therapies for Irish citizens of all needs and ages.

Final Note Magazine met with Harris in Dublin to understand the vast benefits of music therapy and what’s needed from the Irish government to implement this practice in the most beneficial way.

...with my musical friends I had a huge sense of belonging and inclusivity, this helped me to define who I wanted to be."


How did you find your path into music therapy?

In my teens, I found my tribe amongst my musician friends in the Irish National Youth Orchestra and other ensembles I was involved in. It was hard to describe how much this acceptance and sense of belonging meant to me because in my all-girls school, I never felt like I truly fit in. But with my musical friends I had a huge sense of belonging and inclusivity, this helped me to define who I wanted to be. Our family ethos has always been around helping our family, friends and community, never leaving anyone to suffer alone and asking how we can help our wider communities.

The real catalyst for my career change was in 2007 when my sister (who was 14 at the time) and my grandma were involved in a serious car accident in Vancouver, Canada.  We all dropped everything and spent the next two months in Canada. I had been living in London and had just completed my masters in oboe at the Royal College of Music.

My sister exceeded every recovery expectation, her strength and resilience was and is amazing. She was initially in the Intensive Care Unit, then in a fabulous paediatric rehab hospital where she engaged in music therapy. Although this was infrequent and I only met her therapist once, I continued to sing with her during my time at the hospital and just enjoyed that way of being with her. While she was in ICU we would carefully select her favourite music to play on a small stereo beside her bed.

When my sister was finally able to return to Dublin, I moved home to be with the family – my focus and priorities changed dramatically. After things settled I felt a huge pull towards studying music therapy and enrolled at the University of Limerick the following September.


From your perspective, what is music therapy?

This is sometimes hard to answer – I want to create a full image of the power of music therapy while emphasising its importance within every healthcare and wellbeing setting.

Music therapy is based on the understanding that everyone can respond, enjoy and communicate through music. Music is non-verbal which means that sometimes we are the first point of call in accessing someone’s expression and true selves. Music therapy is an evidence-based, clinical profession allied to medicine. The aim is to support each individual towards greater well being and quality of life through the therapeutic use of music. In music therapy, the therapist and client may establish a musical relationship in which they are free to explore, express and communicate within a safe and supportive environment.

The therapist may use a range of techniques including improvisation – making spontaneous music together. The therapist uses their instrumental and therapeutic skills during improvisation to hold a direct and meaningful interaction with the client. The therapist is guided by the client to create music which communicates directly with the clients’ music and dynamic. In holding this musical conversation this can tell us so much about how someone relates to others around them and allows their inner selves to shine through.

Music therapy can address a variety of needs that could also be addressed through psychotherapy, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy etc… the goals are determined through a careful assessment process and developed in conjunction with the client themselves, parents, carers and observations of sessions. Through the sessions, I find out more about how someone is responding to both myself and the music and can further develop our individual, nuanced goals. Recording and evaluating are also a very important part of the music therapy process, as the music therapy process is always responsive, organic and ever-changing. 

Why do you think music therapy is an essential service?

I believe that music therapy can be a unique and wondrous point of call for opening channels of communication. It offers us ways of connecting and knowing someone that no other modality or art form can offer. As Rumi says (I love Rumi!) ‘A divine dance appears in the soul and body at the time of peace and union. Anyone can learn this dance, just listen to the music‘. It offers a means of connecting with emotions that no other modality can offer. Through music therapy, we can support goals specified within a range of other therapeutic disciplines with the unique power of music as the driving force. 


What obstacles do the general public face when wanting to avail of music therapy?

There are a few obstacles, one being that the music therapist being engaged is fully qualified and accredited. This is important for many reasons… but mainly that the therapist is aware and trained in offering support to those who are experiencing challenging emotions within a session. For example, if someone is suddenly reminded of something very sad during a session, the therapist will be able to support that person appropriately. In Ireland, you can find a list of fully qualified therapists on the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

The second obstacle, of course, is finance. There is a small handful of HSE funded music therapists and this is at the financial discretion of each institution. Most people access music therapy privately and while this can be essential it may be impossible for some for whom it would have a great impact. 

Jessica Harris – Final Note Magazine
Jessica Harris – Final Note Magazine

We’re there to communicate musically and, with the right therapist, you’ll be amazed at how you can find your musical voice!"


What are the main benefits of music therapy?

I would say the benefits of music therapy can be completely pervasive and can impact someone’s life on every level… socially, emotionally, spiritually and physically. However, when working with someone and through the assessment process we identify goals with the hope that we can offer opportunities to develop in these areas. A young person who is navigating life with autism will have very different goals to an adult who is managing their mental health, and so our session time will be used very differently. Thus the benefits will also look very different. 

I feel that music is a unique flow of communication that music therapists channel to engage with another person. That direct communication can impact hugely and when that communication clicks in it can be wondrous.   

I’m also very interested in the power of tapping into music to bring meaning and articulation to our individuality and experiences. I feel that the act of creating something musically which expresses ourselves and our emotions (including pain or suffering) with someone else, can act both as a commune and an act of affirmation. I’m considering this particularly in the area of mental health where there is now evidence exploring moving away from the medical model and supporting people socially, culturally and through engaging in such acts of creativity.


In your opinion, who benefits from music therapy?

Music therapy can benefit a huge number of people! To fully explore the benefits of music therapy it is a great help if you find the right fit between therapist and client, as some therapists have specific expertise in specific areas. I also believe in tapping into people’s passion and if music is someone’s passion, they are already open and ready to engage in the process. But some people find their passion for engaging! My advice is if you feel you have no previous musical experience, go for it! We’re there to communicate musically and, with the right therapist, you’ll be amazed at how you can find your musical voice!


Do you believe music therapy belongs in a music education institution or a clinic/hospital setting?

The short answer I believe is both! I have established music therapy at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and my research shows that there are incredibly few music therapists’ operating clinics within music conservatoires. I believe the RIAM is forward-thinking in becoming a centre of music therapy and I’m very proud to be working in my alma mater! 

The benefits within this setting include the beauty of children coming in to attend music therapy and seeing and hearing a whole bunch of students also coming in to attend lessons/ensembles. They experience music all around them while they have their channel for engaging in musical experiences. The challenges include distinguishing between music education and music therapy and protecting the therapeutic process in a space where performance is pervasive. 

Within clinics and hospitals, music therapy can be beneficial and essential on multiple levels. Music therapy can support someone’s recovery through pain management, emotional expression… really the range of benefits is endless, but it’s all about the individual. 

Jessica Harris – Final Note Magazine
Jessica Harris – Final Note Magazine

It’s not all about the music we make but the wonderful process of making it."


What’s the difference between music education and music therapy?

Music education differs from music therapy because music education is all about learning an instrument and progress in learning. Music therapy is all about the process of therapeutically engaging in music-making. Sometimes performance is part of the therapeutic experience and this can have wonderful outcomes but sometimes it’s really important to keep the process just between therapist and client because it is therapy. It’s not all about the music we make but the wonderful process of making it. 


If funding was to increase in the area of music therapy, where should it be placed?

This is such a tough question but I think I have to narrow it down to two areas of desperate need in Ireland that I have observed right now. One is young children with developmental/intellectual disabilities. Early intervention can make such a huge difference and unfortunately the Health Service Executive waiting lists seem to be severely delayed at the moment. 

Second is the area of mental health across all age groups. I feel that the world, in general, is moving towards social, cultural and creative based means of recovery and support in the area of mental health. The impact of an inclusive social environment and culture is immense and making music together joins us in a truly unique way. Furthermore, expressing our creativity through music or otherwise can be an affirmation of our unique selves and can help to channel our experiences into a truly meaningful voice. Of course, again, I believe an increase in funding for providing mental health recovery support would have a huge impact. 


Tell us about some of the greatest therapeutic achievements you have witnessed.

The word achievement belongs completely to the client and I am so honoured to have been a witness for some beautiful moments of self-actualisation and discovery. 

Many moments come to mind, from one young person discovering he knew the colours of the rainbow and pronouncing them to his mum, or another young person expressing new sounds every week – he is now prolific!

However, if I were to mention one client who represented the transformative elements of music therapy it would be a young man I met with moderate/severe Autism Spectrum Disorder. He was 20 years old at the time and limited verbally. When I met him he appeared interested in engaging in lego and didn’t seem to notice me in the room. However, during the very first session, I began to play the keyboard and he came to sit in the chair beside me. He sat up straight with beautiful posture and began to play with me. He engaged this way for a full half-hour, appearing focused and determined! His key workers were thrilled, they had never seen him interacting in this way and it highlighted whole new aspects of his character. Suddenly he appeared to his key workers as the multi-faceted and skilled young man that he was. He greatly enjoyed playing and singing familiar songs such as chart songs and traditional tunes and I believe we both greatly enjoyed our session time together.

What would you like to see happen in this field?

Great question – the world is our oyster! The first thing is I would like to see creative arts therapies being regulated by a government body in Ireland. We’re getting closer to this and some people here on the ground have put in hours and hours of work to make this happen. This would benefit both the therapists and clients of Ireland. At the moment, our association IACAT provides a means of regulation by ensuring that full members who join have completed an accredited course and have fulfilled the criteria to work as a creative arts therapist. However, this, unfortunately, does not prevent others from presenting themselves as therapists. This is a liability for both therapists and clients, particularly clients who may be vulnerable. So I would like to see the government body Coru taking over the regulation process and protecting those who would like to engage in creative arts therapies. 

Secondly, of course, I would love to see music therapy become even more widespread across Ireland. We have some wonderful therapists working across the country and new therapists qualifying every year! I would love to see music therapy offered publicly within our care centres, hospitals, nursing homes etc… I’ve witnessed the impact it can have and only wish that everyone could have access to the music therapy they need. 

I’ve witnessed the impact it can have and only wish that everyone could have access to the music therapy they need."


To find out more about Jessica Harris see:

All images displayed in this article are subject to copyright.

Share this article