History and Historiography

Prescribing Sound: Willem Van de Wall and the Carceral Origins of American Music Therapy

J. Martin Vest
2020, Modern American History
From 1921 until 1936, musician Willem Van de Wall pioneered the modern use of therapeutic music in American prisons and psychiatric institutions. His therapy was steeped in the methods and philosophy of social control, and after World War II, it shaped the professionalizing field of music therapy. Van de Wall's influence reveals an overlooked connection between modern clinical practice and the techniques of control employed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals of the early twentieth century. Given music therapy's broader impact as an element of postwar self-help culture, its relationship to social control practices also disrupts longstanding scholarly ideas about the so-called “therapeutic ethos.” The therapeutic ethos did not originate solely in efforts by the middle classes to adjust to bourgeois modernity. The case of music therapy suggests that some elements of “therapeutic culture” were always coercive and always directed toward the maintenance of race, gender, and clas…

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