Researching the applications of music technology within music therapy - Paul Fernie

dBs Music graduate Paul Fernie will soon be returning (virtually) to dBs Music Bristol to deliver a talk on his exciting PhD research project that looks at the potential impact that music technology can have on current music therapy practices.

Six years ago, when dBs Music Bristol HE first opened its doors, Paul Fernie was ready and waiting. Enrolling on the BA (Hons) Music Production & Sound Engineering course, Paul's interest in the world of music therapy didn't truly crystallise until his final year. 

Now a qualified music therapist, Paul is engrossed in a fascinating research project that fuses his passion for music technology and music therapy.

We caught up with him to learn more about the research project, what he hopes to learn from it and why music plays such an important role in his own life. 

How did you first became interested in DJing and music technology?

"Since I can remember I have been fascinated with music and the technology associated with music playback and production. I think I first got the tech bug when CD players first emerged and remember pestering my parents to buy me a CD player.

"My interest in DJ’ing emerged as a result of trying to record the charts from the radio onto cassettes, always trying to get a smooth transition from one song to the next. I began DJ’ing in my late teens; myself and a friend used to DJ at parties, usually on kit cobbled together between us.

"I later secured a residency at a nightclub in my hometown. I remember the day I took delivery of a pair of Pioneer CDJ 500s, the height of DJ technology at the time. There is a magic to being a DJ, the thrill of taking a crowd on a musical journey is without comparison.

Paul Fernie (Home Setup)

Paul's current home setup

You were in the first wave of students at our then new Bristol HE centre. What was it about dBs Music that motivated you to study here?

"Having opted to study Access to HE: Music Production course at the dBs FE centre in Bristol, it was a bit of a no brainer for me to study for my BA at the new HE facility. The promise of a brand new facility with brand new equipment (the carrot on the stick being the API console) did help to sway my decision, however, I think more importantly I had experienced the quality of the teaching that was on offer at dBs. The passion exhibited by the lectures and support staff in relation to both the music and the teaching inspired me and sealed the deal."

API 1608 mixing desk

The API 1608 mixing desk in our studio 3 control room

When did you first become interested in music therapy?

"My interest in music therapy came about as a direct result of research I carried out as part of a final year project at dBs. For the project I wanted to work with individuals receiving treatment for substance misuse, and in particular, I wanted to take music production tools into the treatment centres and provide individuals in the centres with a variety of creative opportunities.

"My rationale being that music production technology is interactive and it is accessible to people who have no prior music making experience. In order to understand how I could facilitate these music making sessions, I began reading literature relating to music therapy. From here my interest in music therapy grew." 

Music therapy is more commonly practised by musicians using acoustic instruments, whereas your experience lies in production and technology. Could you tell us a little about how you came to join the MA despite this?

"I think it comes down to passion and determination. When I was interviewed I demonstrated a passion for music and my belief that music can be used in a therapeutic way to improve the health and wellbeing of people across many client groups.

"For the interview I had to perform live for the interview panel. Although technology is my ‘first instrument’ I doggedly rehearsed and practised a piece for piano and the accompanying vocals. The project I had completed in my third year at dBs played a big part since it was directly related to music therapy. I was able to talk about my experiences in undertaking the project and how I had been able to integrate music production technology and highlighting that music production technology is just another instrument.

"Finally, while reading for my research project, I became familiar with a text by a leading music therapist specialising in improvised music therapy, the text suggested that individuals with no formal musical background may find improvisation easier to master than those with a formal music education and discussed how improvisation is a key component of creative music production processes." 

This has all culminated in your PhD research project. Could you tell us a little bit more about it? 
"The research project I am working on is a feasibility study which seeks to provide evidence supporting the efficacy of music therapy in community-based substance misuse services. While there is a body of evidence suggesting that music therapy is effective in the relief of symptoms associated with substance misuse and to support individuals in the recovery journey, much of the research to date has been conducted at residential treatment centres. The primary aim of the study is to understand if music therapy can be effective in community settings.

"In addition to the primary aim, the study is providing the research team with the opportunity to explore other questions relating to music therapy and the therapeutic process. My specific research question focuses on the use of music technology in the therapeutic setting and how using music technology influences the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and participant.

Paul Fernie (Music Therapy)

"In addition, I will be exploring methods of analysing the musical content from sessions with the aim of developing an analysis tool that is able to identify key musical features related to moments of state dependent and autobiographical memory recall.

"Understanding musical cues in moments of memory recall is important since these moments of recall can trigger cravings and negative emotions. It is hoped that the research will provide additional evidence demonstrating the efficacy of music technology as a therapeutic intervention, while in addition using the embedded functionality of music production technology to enhance analysis methods." 
It’s really interesting to see you focussing on the negative effects of music as well as the positive. Was that always something you wanted to explore or a development after research began?

"This is something that has emerged as I have read more about the psychological and neurological effects of music. It seems that music is often heralded as a cure to all ills, and while I agree that music is on the whole beneficial in helping us to feel good, there is research emerging that suggests that in some instances music can be harmful, and with this in mind we should proceed with caution.

"A recent study (Sakka and Saarikallio, 2020) has shown that individuals who self reported as experiencing symptoms for anxiety and depression experienced higher instances of negative autobiographical memory recall when listening to self selected music than individuals in the non depressed control group.

"For clients in treatment for substance misuse, musical cues can trigger cravings thus hampering the recovery journey. We still lack a complete understanding of music’s function in relation to the human condition, and I believe it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that music, in some instances and for some people, can be harmful." 

You’ll soon be delivering a talk surrounding your research to our students. What are you hoping they will get out of your lecture?

"I hope that those attending the lecture will in the first instance benefit from a deeper understanding of music therapy and how it benefits a diverse range of client populations, and to highlight the emerging role of music production technology in music therapy.

"I am keen that students see that the skills they are acquiring during their studies have a diverse range of real-world applications that go beyond what they may believe is possible.

"I would also hope that I can inform students on the development pathway from undergraduate through graduate and onto postgraduate study.

"And finally, to highlight that there remains a very real need for further research that seeks to understand the role music has in our health and wellbeing." 

In your experience as a music therapist, what are some simple but effective ways we can use music to improve our wellbeing, particularly at a time when many of us are feeling cut off from our friends and family?

"I think, especially for those who are isolated, forming or joining an online improv group can be a fun and expressive way to engage with others virtually, its not perfect and will never surpass the experience of being in a room making music with others, but it can allow free expression of our feelings.

"Alternatively an online music listening group, where people can share and talk about a song, a bit like a book club. If you do find yourself listening to the same song or playlist over and over, and it’s not helping to lift your mood, maybe take a break from that song or playlist and try something new. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for support." 

Why is music so important to you?

"There is a long and a short answer to this question. The long answer - some of my earliest memories are attached to music, that bring to mind fond memories of people since lost. Music has been a constant companion, sometimes soothing pain and at others being the source of joy and elation.

"It helped me navigate the turmoil of identity formation in my adolescent years, and provided me with an opportunity to entertain people. Through my own experience of substance misuse it provided an anchor into reality, and following my first steps into recovery it again helped me to connect with my identity. It has since become the driving force in my life.

"Music has kept a roof over my head and has become a creative outlet, it has become the focus of my life and work.

"The short answer - it muffles the constant background chatter of my inner voice!"

(Sakka, L. S. and Saarikallio, S., 2020. Spontaneous Music-evoked Autobiographical Memories in Individuals Experiencing Depression. Music & Science. 3, pp.1-15.)

Considering using your musical background to help others? Our MA Innovation in Sound could be the course for you.

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