UP to host 16th World Congress of Music Therapy in 2020

Posted on April 26, 2019

A media launch was held recently for the 16th World Congress of Music Therapy, which will be hosted for the first time in Africa, at the University of Pretoria (UP) from 7 to 11 July 2020. The congress will be hosted in partnership with the World Federation of Music Therapy, the South African Music Therapy Association, MusicWorks, the Tshwane School of Music, the City of Tshwane and Gauteng Tourism.

According to Dr Carol Lotter, Lecturer in music therapy at UP’s School of Arts, music therapy is a registered profession with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). This method of healing uses music across the board, from the very beginning of life to late-stage dementia, to address clients’ cognitive, emotional, physical and social needs. Areas of music therapy practice include intellectual and physical difficulties, child and adult mental health, autism, oncology, geriatrics and community music therapy.

“The clinical use of music is based on assessment, through which goals are formulated for individualised treatment plans,” Dr Lotter said. “Music is employed in a variety of ways to address client needs: for example, listening to music evokes imagery, memories and associations which can be processed verbally and musically. Making music with clients offers alternative ways of communication, self-expression, emotional regulation and social interaction.”

The year 2020 marks 21 years of the Master’s in Music Therapy training at UP, and 26 years of music therapy in South Africa. “In celebrating these milestones, we could think of nothing more appropriate than hosting the World Congress for the very first time on African soil. The theme for the congress is The Polyrhythms of Music,” explained Dr Lotter. 

She explained that Africa is a continent of music. “The Cradle of Humankind pulsates with the music of life, and life on the continent is inextricably tied to music. From marking life events such as birth and death and the celebration of marriage, to teaching our little ones to count, and competing against each other in sports events, music is the golden thread of continuity in our lives. The polyrhythms of Africa hold a diversity of music, expression and possibility.”

Dr Lotter said the congress, which will draw music and arts therapists as well as academics and health professionals from across the world, will showcase international and African offerings in music therapy. It will focus on topics including community music therapy, technological advances in music therapy, diversity and decolonisation, as well as presenting work from a range of clinical settings.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Rene Nassen, who was a guest speaker at the launch, said, “This congress is being held at a defining moment of South Africa’s history. Just to listen to the news today is to expose oneself to some kind of emotional trauma. We hear stories of unacknowledged pain, trauma, dislocation, anguish and anger, of fear and disappointment. Where are we to go from here? How do we achieve reconciliation and a space of healing?” 

“The universal link between creativity and emotion, arts therapies and healing are widely accepted and represented in popular and traditional culture. Their place in society as powerful vehicles of aesthetic expression, of protest, of meaning, of ritual and catharsis is universally accepted. This exploration can facilitate a more hopeful, meaningful and positive understanding of mental suffering and its broader location within the human experience, rather than exclusively in the psychopathological realm.”

 Thabo Mokebe, City of Tshwane representative and Dr Rene Nassen

She explained that music, art, dance and drama therapies are established modalities within the mental health arena. They have a solid evidence base in a wide variety of mental disorders. They support the processing of “hard to manage” emotions, memories or experiences. However, in South Africa, its place in formal practice remains limited and marginal.  

Despite this, arts therapists require registration with the HPCSA, yet “are not ‘designated professions’ within the Department of Health, and as a result no funded posts exist within any public health facility”. 

She said by hosting this congress, South Africa and Africa have an opportunity not just to share the current state of knowledge and practice within the field, but to re-focus energy on achieving more ready access to arts therapies. This will then enhance the holistic delivery of healing within the region. “It is our hope that the conference will act as a catalyst and agent of change, particularly to achieve the creation of arts therapy posts within the public sector.”   

“It is also our hope that this initiative may engender more active engagement and collaborations among health-care practitioners, patients, artists, and arts benefactors... to develop innovative and integrated models of best practice within the health and mental health system,” Dr Nassen said.


- Author Primarashni Gower

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