I’ve been known for a long time in the music world for albums such as The Passion, The Cry, Alpha and Omega, and Fierce Love, and I’ve performed concerts across the world at well-known venues in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Jerusalem, Zurich, Dublin, Nairobi and Washington. So I probably need to explain what happened that caused me to boldly swap large audiences for working one to one with young people who have special needs in a small corner of England.

I do, of course, venture further afield. I regularly visit, for example, Korce, a town in Albania, where I offer training in arts therapy-based approaches to learning and communication, working with a wide range of people, from so-called street children to the elderly, from young children in an orphanage to the residents of a state-run home for people with learning difficulties and physical disabilities. But the move from performing musician to music therapist was significant.

So – picture this: a young child, probably no more than three years old, just beginning to stir from sleep on a Sunday morning. And the first sounds that fill his heart, mind and spirit are the sounds of a piano. Played softly, hauntingly… well-known hymns with strange, poignant harmonies… beautiful, stirring chords to support the familiar melodies. There is comfort here – this is the sound that always accompanies the first moments of Sunday morning, safe, at home, the little boy… and a father.

The young boy is me, Adrian. The father is my father. And to this day I can hear this outpouring of my father’s heart. He loved the classic hymns – as I did and still do. But he played them his way. His chords and harmonies were unmistakably his. This was Geoffrey Stuart Snell at the piano. He couldn’t read music, but his playing by ear was totally fluent and had a depth and melancholy that, even to a three year old, was clearly his heart-song.

Later in life, long into my own journey as a composer, I shared these memories with my father, and remarked that I was frequently drawn to the ‘black’ keys – particularly G flat. ‘That was my key, too,’ he replied. ‘G flat, with its beautiful patterns, haunting colour and ease of moving chord to chord.’ It was as if I’d inherited his key as well as his freckles and fat fingers!

From those early, formative memories, how do I begin to tell the story of music in my life? For I cannot remember a single moment of my life when music has not, in some way or another, been the ‘language of my heart’. How many times have I used that phrase when speaking to others about music and me? And how many times have I used the words, first penned by the Biblical psalmist, ‘deep calls to deep’, when trying to throw more light upon this mystical, deeply emotional and spiritual act of communication between music and the heart, between performer and audience, composer and composition, conductor and orchestra, and, extraordinarily, between a composer, no longer on this earth and yet fully, wonderfully and unpredictably alive to his or her interpreter?

I have wept, prayed, cried out, danced, laughed, screamed, lost and found life, raged, demanded answers, asked impossible questions and refused to give or receive easy answers – all in song, and in songs without words. Music is breath to me – more than a friend, and yet, just as often, a stranger – dark, unknown… frightening, even. Where will it take me – as a listener, and as a writer? My very identity is caught up in music. The music that I play and listen to tells me who I am… and others – if they have ears to hear. And if they don’t, then I can experience a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.

I rarely feel more complete and alive than in those moments when a concert performance truly resonates with the audience, when ‘the deep in me’ has called to, and been heard by, ‘the deep in them’ – hundreds of individuals somehow  responding ‘as one’, with one heart and voice.

And then there’s the opposite: the profound degree of intimacy in the act of making music with another – improvised, heart to heart, soul to soul. An unspoken act of union through sound, witnessed by no one else, without any need for analysis or further discussion, just an unrepeatable moment, a moment of reassurance, of confirmation, that this ‘language of the heart’ transcends all, and was always meant to.

Bringing music back to its roots

No wonder, then, that after 30 years during which my music-making ‘home’ was the concert stage, the recording studio, or the writing room, I felt an overwhelming need to bring music back to its roots somehow, back to the simple yet profound act of communication between, perhaps, just two people. That place where words may or may not be possible but where words are no longer needed. And it was within the world of music therapy – the study, training and now practice – that I have come back to that place.

So, for those for whom placing the words ‘music’ and ‘therapy’ together feels instinctively right and appropriate somehow, but whose knowledge about music therapy as a profession is limited, what exactly is it? How, and for whom, is it given? What might take place during a session? Here are some facts and explanations:

  • Music therapy is an established healthcare profession that uses music to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals of all ages.
  • It is one of the creative arts therapies, where music, art, drama and dance are not so much ‘taught’ as ‘lived’. 
  • It is a fully recognised profession, registered with, and accountable to, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). 
  • Music therapy aims to improve the quality of life for people who are fundamentally ‘well’, and seeks to address the communication difficulties often encountered by children and adults with learning difficulties, physical disabilities and additional needs.
  • Music therapists support children and adults with behavioural, emotional and mental health challenges.
  • Within this broad spectrum of need, and because the instruments and sound sources are carefully chosen for their ease of access, with no learned skill or previous experience of playing needed, music therapy can be a powerful intervention in:
    - Promoting wellness, developing self-confidence and building self-esteem
    - Managing anxiety and stress, emotional and physical
    - Expressing our feelings, with or without words
    - Enhancing memory
    - Improving and enhancing communication: offering additional or alternative ways of ‘telling our stories’.
  • A music therapy ‘session’ is not a ‘lesson’. Whoever you are, whatever age you may be, you will be invited into a creative arts space where, essentially, there is no ‘right or wrong’ way to play, move, paint or act. So you will be given the freedom and encouragement to ‘go with instinct or preference’ without judgment. 
  • A music therapy space will always be a safe place, with clearly and appropriately defined boundaries. And because of this, children and adults alike will often be drawn into a world of self-discovery, a process of reaching the ‘authentic’ person, free from the many layers of detachment that so often build up because of all that life and living throw at us.

Working in Bath

My primary place of work and practice now is at Three Ways School, an Academy Trust in Bath. We have 205 children and young people between the ages of four and 19, with a very wide range of special and additional needs: educational, emotional, physical and behavioural – a wonderful, challenging, beautiful, unique community. Most of us are profoundly responsive to sound and music, and at Three Ways, we understand the significance of music, sound and ‘resonance’ as a fundamental, shared experience in all our lives.

So in the context of music therapy at Three Ways, instruments and sources of sound and resonance become our tools for building meaningful relationships, offering ways of communication and self-expression that have no need of, or dependence on, spoken words. We have a significant number of non-verbal children, and for these, in a sense, music and music therapy ‘comes into its own’, because music is, of course, not only about the sounds we hear. It’s also about the shapes, textures and colours that belong to the source of the sound. And all of these elements are important when thinking about what might engage, interest or motivate the child.

‘James’ is 12 years old. He is severely autistic and also non verbal. Typically, a session will start with a familiar song, piece of music or sound, and then I would indicate, using simple signs, that James is free to explore the room, choosing whatever appeals, making any possible sounds, with my facilitation if required.

And then, when James has discovered something intriguing, I will seek to enable that instrument to become a ‘bridge’ between us. This might involve playing it together, or me choosing a supporting instrument, or inviting James to choose one for me.

I am essentially always working towards encouraging interaction; real, conscious engagement – seeking ways in which James will experience, in a positive way, the pleasure that is to be found in joining together with another person in making music.

And of course, quite possibly, these are significant moments of genuine communication for James, given the socially isolated world he inhabits day by day – the first experiences of such communication with someone outside his family or circle of carers.

From that point, the journey will be as individual as is James. And his preferences, in terms of sounds, instruments, shapes and textures, rhythms, melodies and harmonies, will dictate the direction of our half hour together.

And in this space, free from the stress and anxiety often associated with the demands, noises and expectations of the classroom, James can truly flourish within a child-centred, child-led way of building a meaningful relationship – with all the unlimited potential that flows from the pleasure to be found when two people enjoy each other’s company.

Indeed, Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego regards music as potentially fundamentally transformative, because ‘not only is it a product of the brain’s mental capacities, it also has the power to change our brain’.1 And Phillip Ball, in his bestseller The Music Instinct, goes even further and says: ‘Regardless of whether evolution has given our brains musical modules, it seems to have given us intrinsic proclivities for extracting music from the world. Music is a part of what we are and how we perceive the world.’2

What an unspeakable, joyous gift has been offered to men, women and children, alone in creation. That when words are not enough, words are an obstacle, words are inadequate or there are simply no words… there is music.

Adrian Snell is a music therapist and arts therapy consultant at Three Ways School in Bath, Bath Opportunities Preschool (BOP) and Aspire Academy, Bath. 


1 Patel AD. Music, language and the brain. New York: Oxford University Press; 2010.
2 Ball P. The music instinct: how music works and why we can’t do without it. New York: Oxford University Press; 2010.