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date: 30 November 2021

Music Therapy for Women Who Have Experienced Domestic Violence

Abstract and Keywords

Music therapists working in the area of domestic violence represent an emergent, but growing professional group. The term domestic violence is currently the most widely recognized. However, it has been criticized for the way in which it can serve to mask dimensions of gender and power involved, and can individualize the problem, ignoring its sociopolitical underpinnings. It also masks connections between this type of violence and all forms of male violence against women. As a result to ensure a better understanding, the preferred term for all types of this violence is woman abuse, with intimate male partner violence (IMPV) the preferred term for violence against women in their intimate relationships. It should be noted that men can be victims of violence, but this violence is different in its nature, scope, and its impact. Music therapy work in the area of woman abuse is presented in this chapter.

Keywords: domestic violence, feminist therapy, music therapy and violence, music therapy and trauma, music therapy and woman abuse

Music therapists working in the area of domestic violence represent an emergent, but growing practice (Cassity and Theobold 1990; Curtis 2000, 2006, 2008, 2013; Curtis and Harrison 2006; Fesler 2007; Hahna 2004; Hahna and Borling 2004; Hernández-Ruiz 2005; Laswell 2001; Lee 2007; Rinker 1991; Slotoroff 1994; Teague et al. 2006; Whipple and Lindsey 1999; York 2006; York and Curtis, 2015). The scope and the nature of this practice will be explored in this chapter, however prior to doing so attention must first be directed to issues surrounding the term “domestic violence.”

Domestic violence is currently the most popularly-used and widely-recognized term for this phenomenon. It is for this reason it was chosen for use in this chapter’s title. There has, however, been longstanding contention around the use of this term, as with the naming of all forms of violence against women (Brown 2008; Curtis, 2013). The term serves to mask the dimensions of gender and power involved, as well as individualizing the problem and effectively ignoring its sociopolitical underpinnings. It also masks the connection between this type of violence and all forms of male violence against women. In reality, women are overwhelmingly the victims of violence in intimate relationships (whether from husbands, ex-husbands, or boyfriends) and this violence is rooted in a sociopolitical context which supports it and connects it with such other forms of male violence against women as sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse (Curtis 1996, 2000; Sinha 2013). As a result to ensure a better understanding, the preferred term for all types of this violence is woman abuse, with intimate male partner violence (IMPV) the preferred term for violence against women in their intimate relationships. It should be noted that men can be victims of violence, but this violence is different in its nature, its scope, and its impact, and should therefore be addressed separately.

Having looked at the important issues surrounding the naming and understanding of this violence, attention will be directed to its incidence, followed by women’s experiences of it. This shall include both the challenges they face and the great strengths they demonstrate. The chapter will then turn to the ways in which music therapy—when informed by the latest (p. 290) understanding of woman abuse and by a multicultural approach of cultural humility—can be effectively used to free women from the harm of such violence and to ultimately empower them as they reclaim their lives.

Intimate male partner violence: Incidence

The incidence rate of IMPV is difficult to accurately determine because sociopolitical factors render it difficult to report and unlikely, until recently, to be counted (Curtis 2008, 2013; Sinha 2013; York and Curtis 2015). Historically, public awareness has ebbed and waned, remaining relatively minimal until a specific incident makes the headlines; it generates much discussion at the time—although typically in terms of an individual love story gone wrong—and then it drops from public consciousness, replaced by the next headliner. There is, however, some increasing understanding that IMPV is a serious and pervasive phenomenon facing many women (Sinha 2013). Internationally, it is identified as one of the most common forms of violence against women (Sinha 2013). Of those who do report intimate partner violence in the US, women account for 85 percent, with an average of three women per day killed by their intimate male partner and one in four women experiencing IMPV at some point in their lifetime (Black et al. 2011; National Coalition against Domestic Violence 2012). Incidence rates are similar in other countries, showing IMPV to take not only a personal toll but also a social and economic toll with such costs as health care, legal services, and productivity loss (Curtis 2008; Kanani 2012; Sinha 2013; Teague et al. 2006). In Canada, the total cost of IMPV has been estimated at 4.8 billion (Sinha 2013). Ultimately, with women reluctant to report abuse (and understandably so), music therapists can expect to see an increasing number of women survivors of IMPV—whether or not they work at agencies specifically providing services for them and whether or not the women have identified themselves as abuse survivors.

Women’s experiences of IMPV

In discussing women and their experiences of IMPV, it is important to be careful in identifying certain parameters. Historically, abused women have been blamed for the abuse in looking to identify individual characteristics which result in their seeking out and/or remaining in abusive relationships. In contrast, what follows is a discussion of women’s experiences in terms of the results of harmful and longstanding violence with an understanding that individual women’s experiences can vary dramatically depending on: The nature of the violence and the relationship; available personal, interpersonal, and societal resources; coping skills; and the presence or absence of children. These can be further influenced by any intersection of such other sources of oppression as racism, classism, sexism, ableism, etc. Ultimately in describing women’s experiences, beyond focusing on effects rather than causes, it is important also to move past defining women solely as victims or even solely as survivors. As one woman emphasized—her life is about so much more.

IMPV involves both physical and emotional impact. The physical impact can be severe and includes immediate impact as well as a negative impact on the physical health across (p. 291) the lifespan. The immediate physical impact includes: Physical injury (affecting four in ten women victims of IMPV) often requiring medical attention, treatment in hospitals, and time off work. It can involve physical and sexual assault (Sinha 2013).

Despite the considerable severity of the physical impact, it is the emotional impact of IMPV that women report as the most challenging to overcome (Curtis 2000). The emotional impact varies considerably from woman to woman and can include: Anxiety, fear, depression, sleep problems, stress, psychological distress, decreased self-esteem, and subsequent feelings of self-blame and shame (Curtis 2013; Sinha 2013; York and Curtis, 2015). These feelings of self-blame and shame are not merited, but reflect internalization of their experiences of violence. Women can also experience such diametrically-opposed responses as hypervigilence and denial, flooding, and numbing (Burstow 2003; Curtis 2013).

In looking at the negative impact of IMPV, it is important not to overlook the great strength and resilience women exhibit in their efforts to escape and recover from their experiences of violence (Burstow 2003; Curtis 2013; Curtis and Harrison 2006). They demonstrate many strong survival skills and effective coping strategies—within the abusive relationship, in seeking to escape from it, and in recovering afterwards. They are diligent in their care for their children and in their efforts to secure their safety.

Any consideration of the diversity of women and their experiences of IMPV must also be taken in conjunction with the manner in which that interacts with the diversity of music therapists and within the therapeutic process. In discussing diversity considerations for therapists, Brown (2008) identifies a variety of social locations which can give rise to differing experiences of oppression and privilege, and which can include: “Age, disability, religion, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, indigenous heritage, national origin, and gender/sex, as well as vocation, body size, health, experiences of colonization, and choices concerning partnership and parenting” (Curtis 2013, p. 6). Therapists must keep in mind the impact of their clients’ social locations as well as their own if they hope to provide effective and sensitive therapy. Yet this poses considerable challenges, requiring more than an intellectual understanding of this intersectionality. Most recent recommendations to assist in this involve “cultural humility” (Brown 2008; Juarez et al. 2005; Schachter et al. 2008; Tervalon and Murray-Garcia 1998). This lifelong process of self-reflection requires therapists to act as allies and advocates for their clients while recognizing their individual skills and perspectives, to acknowledge the therapists’ own limitations while demonstrating a willingness to learn, and to respect the diversity of the human experience.

With an understanding of the nature of woman abuse in general and IMPV in particular, a recognition of the diversity of the lives of clients and therapists alike, and a review of the importance of an approach of cultural humility, it is appropriate to turn in the section which follows to an examination of the specific use of music therapy to empower women who have experienced IMPV.

Music therapy to empower women who have experienced IMPV

Of the recently emerging practice of music therapy with abused women, an increasing segment involves Feminist Music Therapy (Curtis 2000, 2013; Hadley 2006; Purdon 2006; York (p. 292) 2006; York and Curtis, 2015). This makes sense since this particular approach adheres to the most recent and best informed conceptualization of male violence against women with a sociopolitical understanding of its nature. It also involves a broader understanding of women’s lives and experiences which encompasses not only the influences of sex/gender, but the complex intersection of the full array of possible sources of oppression discussed earlier in the cultural humility approach: Age, ability, religion, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, indigenous heritage, national origin, and gender/sex, as well as vocation, body size, health, experiences of colonization, and choices concerning partnership and parenting. Given this, Feminist Music Therapy, while applicable for work with any client population, is particularly well suited for work with women survivors of violence. Given this particular suitability of Feminist Music Therapy and given that this approach is being increasingly embraced in the music therapy practice with survivors of IMPV, it is this approach which will be the focus of this chapter in the section which follows.

Feminist music therapy with abused women

Feminist Music Therapy evolved, like feminist therapy and like feminism itself, as a grassroots movement and subsequently it reflects some diversity—a diversity which is embraced by its practitioners as both enriching and essential. Each practitioner brings to it their own understanding of feminism and the way this informs their therapy within the context of their own particular social locations and experiences. Yet underlying this diversity is a foundation common to all which is rooted in a “feminist belief system with its sociopolitical understanding of men’s and women’s lives as they are constructed within a patriarchal culture” (Curtis 2007, p. 199).

Given the commonalities and diversities within Feminist Music Therapy and among Feminist Music Therapists, it is important to be aware that what follows is a description of Feminist Music Therapy practice with abused women framed within my own particular context and experiences of intersectionality. These experiences started in 1996 with my development of the first model of Feminist Music Therapy (Curtis 2000) and evolved from my ongoing work with abused women and girls in the United States and Canada over the intervening years. The unique feminist understanding that underpins Feminist Music Therapy is reflected in its signature goals: To facilitate a sociopolitical understanding of women’s experiences—of life in general and of abuse in particular; to empower women—personally, interpersonally, and politically; to foster recovery from the harm of violence; and to bring about personal and social change (Curtis, 2000, 2007, 2008). These goals make it explicit that work within therapy alone is insufficient; change on the sociopolitical level is also required—both on the part of the therapist and the client. This social activism component will be looked at later in the chapter. Attention will be turned first to the techniques used within Feminist Music Therapy.

Feminist Music Therapy techniques, although small in number, are a powerful reflection of its hallmark goals. Although unique in their philosophical framework and their application, they translate into some music experiences seen used for other purposes in other music therapy approaches. These techniques include: Feminist analysis of power and gender; women’s empowerment; and the valuing of women and women’s perspectives.

(p. 293) Feminist analysis of power and gender is accomplished through such music experiences as lyric analysis, songwriting, and recording/performance. Lyric analysis allows an opportunity to explore a diversity of issues surrounding power and gender role socialization that impact women and men—not just abuse, but a full spectrum including love, relationships, gender-role socialization throughout the life span, change, control, anger, self-nurturing, strength and empowerment, and witnessing (Curtis 2000, 2013). In lyric analysis, it is important to move from listening to pre-recorded music to performing live in the group under the music therapist’s leadership. Listening to pre-recorded music allows the clients to hear similar stories from others (including well-known singer-songwriters), thus breaking the social isolation and countering the message from abusers (and at times society) that it is their fault and that it happens only to them. Performing the music live allows the clients to internalize the song, to make it their own. The music therapist can provide a good selection of diverse music from which the clients can choose; clients may also bring in their own and this can be a particularly effective way of empowering them and of addressing multicultural issues, as clients can be experts of their own music, their own culture, and their own lives. There is a wide selection of music available and the collection will vary for each music therapist depending on client makeup and interests. Music written by and/or at least performed by women is highly recommended as this allows the clients to more readily identify with the song lyrics. A partial listing of appropriate songs by theme can be found in Women Survivors of Abuse and Developmental Trauma, Chapter 8 in Eyre’s Guidelines for Music Therapy Practice: Mental health (Curtis, 2013, pp. 11–12). Songwriting and recording serve as excellent follow ups to Lyric Analysis and are effective therapeutic experiences in which to accomplish Feminist Analysis. They are also effective tools for facilitating women’s empowerment and so they shall be looked at next.

Women’s empowerment is accomplished through a variety of music experiences—in addition to songwriting and recording, this can include improvisation in general, and drumming in particular in its use for body work and fostering self-esteem. In looking at each of these, it is important to remember that women’s empowerment should be accomplished at the personal, interpersonal, and sociopolitical levels. Music therapists must focus with their clients on all levels as they move from work within the private sphere (in therapy, in their lives, and in their interpersonal relationships) to work in the public sphere (in social activism).

Songwriting and recording, when carefully introduced by the music therapist, provide a wonderful opportunity for women to give voice to their own experiences—a voice that is long silenced by abusers and an unresponsive (or at least inappropriately responding) community health and legal system. Telling their stories and letting them be heard through song—or witnessing—validates their experiences while allowing them to challenge the status quo, taking the feminist analysis from the impersonal level of lyric analysis to the very personal level of their own lived experiences. The subsequent recording of these original compositions can ultimately foster their sense of self-worth sometimes in a very profound way. Women have the choice of recording the song with themselves singing or having the music therapist perform it for them. In either case, the recording must be of the highest quality; and in either case the result is a powerful, esthetic reflection of the woman’s own creativity and a testimony of her resilience.

Improvisation and drumming can also provide wonderful empowerment opportunities. Improvisation permits self-expression which bypasses the verbal; as such it allows intimacy and honesty without fear of judgement. Drumming which makes use of large powerful (p. 294) instruments and large powerful sounds provides unparalleled opportunities to address the important issues surrounding body and power that face abused women. Both body and spirit are attacked by abusive intimate partners who accompany their physical assaults with relentless messages that the women are worthless, deserve the violence, and indeed have asked for it; this is exacerbated by the social isolation abusers maintain over the women, thus removing possible sources of support that might contradict these messages (Curtis 2000). In taking control of such large, physically-demanding instruments as Japanese Taiko, abused women can reclaim their physical and spiritual strength and confidence.

Valuing of women is accomplished through such music experiences as lyric analysis, songwriting, and music-centered relaxation. Having already looked at the processes of lyric analysis and songwriting, attention will be directed here to the use of music-centered relaxation. Certainly abused women face considerable stress—before or after they have left—and music-centered relaxation can readily address this in the hands of a skilled music therapist. Beyond this, however, the issue of self-nurturance must be addressed. It is important to counter pop culture messages of a mother’s selflessness—a selflessness that exists at the expense of themselves, their souls. Often women do not leave abusive situations until their children become the targets of the violence. It is important to understand that the children’s wellbeing is compromised simply in witnessing their mothers’ abuse. For the well-being of mother and child alike, women must leave—and must learn to value their own self-nurturance.

The role of Feminist Music Therapy with its sociopolitical understanding of violence has been examined with particular attention to its signature techniques of feminist analysis, empowerment, and the honoring of women’s perspectives. Any examination, however, of women’s experiences in Feminist Music Therapy would be incomplete without turning to the words of the women themselves. The positive outcomes for abused women in music therapy have been identified in terms of standardized tests (Curtis 2000; Curtis and Harrison 2006), but it is in their original songs that their true stories of resilience, power, and recovery truly resonate. Their power in word and music cannot be ignored. And so it is to one woman’s song that attention is focused now—both the words (in the printed lyrics below) and the music (in the audio file available here

)—and to her journey to be free.
  • To Be Free
  • Verse one
  • The words in the paper were plain and simple no apparent emotions attached
  • The headline stated starkly Crime Digest, December 1st, 1995.
  • Underneath, laid out in neat little columns countless stories of other people’s lives
  • But one woman’s story, not much different from the rest caught my eye

  • Verse two
  • It said a man was arrested Tuesday
  • A woman said he tried to pull her in his car
  • She said they struggled, she resisted
  • He grabbed her purse and punched her in the eye
  • The facts were told so cold, the names we must withhold
  • To protect the innocent
  • It simply mentioned his relationship—her ex-boyfriend—in a brief aside

  • Chorus
  • All I ask is that you hear my voice
  • And listen to my story
  • (p. 295) Like all other women seeking safety
  • We want to be free

  • Verse three
  • She said he punched her in the face
  • Her eye was swollen and bruised
  • The facts were told as given, nothing inferred, no judgements made
  • Why does this story haunt me so? Why does it stay with me night and day?
  • Why do I feel there’s so much more to be read between the lines?
  • I’ll tell you my secret, I’ve told others, none have heard
  • That woman was me

  • Chorus
  • All I ask is that you hear my voice
  • And listen to my story
  • Like all other women seeking safety
  • We want to be free

  • Verse four
  • The papers tell our stories in terms of love
  • Is it love gone wrong or simply hate?
  • Some people look at me, they shake their heads
  • With words no different than what he said
  • The words trap my heart like clipped wings do a bird
  • More harmful than any blow
  • Some say, “Stand by your man,” others ask, “Why don’t you leave him?”
  • I ask, “Why won’t he let me go?”

  • Chorus
  • All I ask is that you hear my voice
  • And listen to my story
  • Like all other women seeking safety
  • We want to be free
  • All we ask is that you hear our voices
  • And listen to our stories
  • Like all other women seeking safety
  • We want to be free

Curtis 1996, pp. 418–419

Before closing this chapter, it is important to return to the issue of work with abused women requiring change at not only the personal and interpersonal levels of the private sphere, but also at the political level in the public sphere. This is an explicit requirement of Feminist Music Therapy, but its importance is also now explicitly acknowledged by experts in the broader field of violence against women such as Statistics Canada:

Violence against women has been recognized, at both the national and international levels, as a serious and ongoing impediment to gender equality and women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms

Sinha, 2013, p. 4

Not only is violence against women an impediment to gender equity and women’s human rights; it also will only be eliminated with a focus in the public sphere on actively ensuring these rights for women. In this regard, Feminist Music Therapists are already well situated (p. 296) as their approach, unique among music therapy approaches, has a twofold purpose—“to accomplish personal transformation by individuals within their own lives and sociopolitical change within the community” (Curtis 2007, p. 199). Feminist Music Therapists then work specifically and directly with their clients as they move into the public sphere, becoming advocates for themselves and for other women. Indeed, this is one of the great strengths of women survivors: They “demonstrate an understanding of others who have been traumatized, along with a strong commitment to social justice and much-needed activism” (Curtis, 2013, p. 5). In my work, women have moved out of the therapy room to speak for themselves in giving their family members and even their abusers copies of the songs they have recorded; they have also taken their music and their voices to the streets in participating in community walks against violence.


In this chapter, an examination has been provided of the emergent practice of music therapy with women who have experienced violence at the hands of their intimate male partner. The particular nature of this violence, the challenges faced by these women, and their remarkable strengths and resilience have been identified. Best practices for music therapy with this population have also been outlined. Because of the nature of violence against women, music therapists may expect to see abused women in their practice regardless of the particular population in which they work. As result, it behooves all music therapists to become familiar with the nature of this work so that they can provide sensitive and well-informed music therapy services. The women deserve nothing less.

It seems, subsequently, only fitting to close with women’s own voices (Curtis, 1996, p. 419):

  • All we ask is that you hear our voices
  • And listen to our stories
  • Like all other women seeking safety
  • We want to be free


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