“How can you have music therapy without humour?!”: a phenomenologically informed arts-based reflexive study exploring humour in music therapy with persons living with dementia
In music therapy practice, humour is closely linked to playfulness and play and is largely taken for granted by music therapists. Despite music therapists’ anecdotal interest, to date there has been little in-depth focus on humour in music therapy work. The two main studies written in the English language address the use of humour and its musical form and are positioned from music therapists’ perspectives. Thus, a need was identified for including the views of persons attending music therapy, along with more comprehensive study of relational experiences and therapeutic consequences of humour. A pilot phase of this study showed humour as relationally significant and invited the development of novel methods with which to investigate it. Subsequently, a phenomenologically informed reflexive-relational methodology was used to better understand 1. How humour enables contact in music therapy with persons living with dementia and 2. How music therapists perceive, embody and experience humour in music therapy. Interpretative methods of “interview-encounters” with persons living with dementia and their music therapists, and focus groups with music therapists, were used to gather data and arts-based reflexive methods of sense-making offered imaginal understanding of relational experiences of humour. Familiar verbal, non-verbal and embodied forms of humour, or “in-jokes”, were found to act as catalysts for intrapersonal and interpersonal contact between music therapists and persons living with dementia. These moments appeared to heighten experiences of presence in relation to self and other. In addition, contact through humour enabled a relational equality that was meaningful as well as individually agential. From music therapists’ perspectives, a tension was found between humour and a sense of professional identity and role in practice. This appeared to lead to anxiety when using or engaging with humour and meant that a sense of relational risk was embodied in performing humour in practice. The music therapists involved in the study had absorbed this sense of risk bodily through experiences of improvising with others whilst training. Important questions were therefore raised around the “tool-ness” of humour which also surfaced implicit power dynamics in music therapy relationships. Framing a sense of humour as a developmentally vital relational experience, this study suggests that a more sophisticated understanding of humour in music therapy is needed. This has broad implications for considering music therapy processes, pedagogy and practice.