The Bonny Institute

History and Development of the Bonny Method

The Bonny Institute offers educational programs which introduce and further the work of Helen Lindquist Bonny.

Excerpts from Presentation by Helen Lindquist Bonny

... at the World Congress of Music Therapy Plenary Session: Panel of Founders
November 19, 1999
Washington, D.C.
Helen Lindquist Bonny playing a violin

I was fortunate to study under the guidance of E. Thayer Gaston at the University of Kansas where I received my Music Therapy certification and a master's degree with an emphasis in research. The mystical experience of 12 years earlier was my inspiration to find ways in which music could be infused into the lives of persons to create the changes I felt had happened to me. I had come to the realization that most people listen to music in a surface way, that emotions touched by music rarely reach the deeper layers of consciousness. My premise was that the magic could happen to others, as it had for me, if a way might be found to enter and uncover the creative potential in each person through the use of carefully chosen music. And further, I was determined through research, if that was possible, to discover how this might be done.

In 1968 it was my good fortune to be invited to join the staff of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (MPRC) where work with clinical applications of mind-altering drugs was given government approval. Serious, controlled research in depth psychology and altered states of consciousness drew the best minds in those fields. My assigned task, which was to research the production and choice of music for the drug sessions, gave me unusual access to learning about the deeper layers of the psyche in what was called the unconscious.

The work at MPRC was with persons suffering from neurotic symptomatology, substance abuse, and terminal cancer. The drugs had a powerful impact allowing deep levels of consciousness to be probed and brought to awareness. In fact, the purpose was to access the whole area of the psyche. The information was retrieved in the form of imagery. Imagination was the valued aid to insight and understanding.

Music was used as the safest and most effective accompaniment to high dose drug usage. It was my job to help choose the most effective musical accompaniment to each treatment schedule. We found that the most effective music as guide for the session was classical music. During this period, I was to learn not only what music to use; but how to use and adapt unique guiding techniques for effective therapy when the client is in a deeply altered state of consciousness. The excesses of taking impure drug dosages on the streets of America and the resulting bad trips led to legal restrictions and eventually to the banning of these drugs even in clinical situations such as ours.

My question then became: could classical music be used in place of drugs as the initiator and promoter of inner experience?

Scientist Charles Tart has defined altered states of consciousness as "a qualitative alteration in the overall pattern of mental functioning, such that the experiencer feels his consciousness is radically different from the way it functions normally." (Tart, 1969).

That definition seemed to fit the music experience people were having. Music listened to in these deeper states did bring about imagery of a visual, kinesthetic and sensory nature. That was fascinating, but of equal interest to me were the changes in auditory reception. Music familiar in usual listening states took on an unknown dimension and clarity of expression. In multidimensional orchestral or choral compositions each line in the score took on an individuality separate but connected to the whole. The result was a vast expanse of musical sound that enveloped the listener, and on occasion, entered the deep psychological spaces within the person. Of the latter, so profound was the experience that many described it in spiritual terms as a peak experience, a positive watershed that changed the direction of their lives. The peak could also be one of a so-called negative nature in which the listener was immersed in images and feelings which had not been adequately expressed or cleaned out of his psyche. Carefully chosen music had the power to effect these changes and to ferret out impediments of an emotional nature that we all carry around in our persons.

The work that became known as Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) leaned heavily on two current psychological forces: humanistic and transpersonal. Maslow's self-actualization model and Carl Rogers' client-centered therapy broadened the areas in which psychology could function. The transpersonal model, born from humanistic psychology, gave theoretical support to the type of transformation we had witnessed at MPRC.

Leuner's Guided Affective Imagery therapy, drawn from the psychoanalytic model, provided an important step in the development of GIM. It was more structured than Guided Imagery and Music and less focused on the transpersonal areas of the psyche. I learned a great deal from watching him work. He was using music to intensify and provide for an affective response within the set imagery sequences he allowed his clients. I offered to be the subject for a demonstration during which I immediately realized the potency of music in evoking imagery. I intuitively knew how to program music to explore deep inner spaces. Further verification of the effects I had experienced and witnessed led me to the premise that the so-called referential value in music does indeed raise imagery. This occurs not only in response to the musical material composed as descriptive of place and mood, but to be idiosyncratic - raising images and feelings specific to each listener - and, therefore, more profoundly relevant to music enjoyment and therapeutic intervention. I was interested in such questions as why certain music raised emotional responses, how generalized these were in listeners, how the elements of rhythm, pitch, timbre, dynamics, form, and particularly performance, effected the depth and profundity of the client's reported states. I found some answers in published works of Zuckerkandl, Meyer, Pinchas Noy, and Susanne Langer. But much of my learning about this new way of listening to music came by observation and experience.

The GIM process which is divided into four elements is patterned in similar ways to the psychedelic sessions I was trained in, and they follow psychoanalytic patterns.

The value of the GIM approach lies in its permissiveness, as well as in the depth of penetration, which is possible in one or many sessions. The GIM approach is self-evocative. It is based on the theory that the individual psyche when properly approached will respond with the most efficient and effective imagery, and that music is the central evoking agent. The therapist and the music provide a milieu within which the widest possible choices can be made. We call this milieu an envelope of sound, or sound presence and the element of sound presence introduced into work with imagery creates the powerful therapeutic differences between verbally produced, and music-evoked imagery.

Music is central to GIM work. We call music our co-therapist but in fact it is the core. The three year training which is required to professionally use the Bonny Method of GIM is largely spent in coming to know music, especially classical music. How to use music as the opener to altered states of consciousness; what elements in music evoke emotional responses, suggest imagery sequences. How the various tapestries of music suit personality types. In a sense the GIM facilitator becomes a composer of available music selections to suit the client's present state of mind. At the beginning I programmed the music and put those programs onto some 18 different tapes. This was done as a model, as a suggestion of how profiles for a session might be built. Today, in our training, the introduction of CDs has made a more spontaneous choice allowable for the facilitator. As the music is learned and practiced, more freedom in forming programs is possible. To do a credible job of guiding with music, the facilitator must come to know each possible selection intimately.

The uses of music in GIM are cited as a major difference between the Bonny Method and traditional music therapy. An intimate knowledge and use of classical music is required. The music itself is pre-composed, chosen from the masters, and listened to in a deeply relaxed state of consciousness. Deep conscious elements of the person are evoked through the imagery which arises in response to the music medium and the presence of the supportive guide. Other artistic media are used to make the imagic experiences more concrete and to help in the integration of the experience. Immediate interpretation of the imagery and feeling responses are not asked for because we feel that imagery has a life and response of its own that reveals interpretation when the client is ready to realize it.

The Bonny Method of GIM has borrowed strongly from the clinical drug-related work begun in the early 70's at the MPRC. It has, however, separated itself by making music, rather than the drugs, the initiator, supporter, and mediator of deep inner experience. At the time I realized its potential as a form of possible private practice in the field of music therapy. Research toward that end was part of my doctoral study. The success of the study began the training programs which have been given over 25 years. These programs presented by some 12 national and international centers are now authorized by our overall regulating organization, the Association for Music and Imagery.

At the beginning, 25 years ago, I had two overriding desires to contribute toward my music therapy discipline:

To provide an effective private practice milieu for music therapists that would emphasize Maslow's concepts of humanistic psychology and a musical Rogerian client-centered therapy. And, most dear to my heart, was the desire to bring great music - music lived through time and so valued, that each generation venerated it - into music therapy.

I am often asked how I feel about the growth of GIM practice. Astonished, delighted, grateful for its acceptance in the past 27 years. Now taught in many countries around the world; acceptance by the music therapy community - all of these - and a profound awe of great music and its power to change lives.

- Helen Lindquist Bonny, PhD, CMT

Portions of this presentation came from various sources that will be published elsewhere, and are already under copyright. This excerpt was edited by Marilyn Clark for the Bonny Institute website (12/2000).

To be music therapists in our world of unbelief, we must be pioneers with a pioneer spirit of exploration.