Research: When the Abstract is…. Too Abstract

By Taylorlyn Mehnert, MusicWorx Intern

Keeping up with the windstorm of ideas that is music therapy can be a full time job.  Theoretically, the research is easily accessible to us. If you want to learn more about a specific subject, all you need is journal access to find just about anything you want to know. Though, getting access to the articles themselves is just the first, and easiest, hurdle to cross. Because the accessibility of research is especially critical in music therapy, we need to explore the barriers between the work of researchers and its applicability to clinicians, and how we can collectively and individually work to navigate them. In their competencies, AMTA requires that students will be able to…

  • Interpret information in the professional research literature.
  • Demonstrate basic knowledge of the purpose and methodology of historical, quantitative, and qualitative research.
  • Perform a data-based literature search.
  • Integrate the best available research, music therapists’ expertise, and the needs, values, and preferences of the individual(s) served.

… but with so many subjects crammed into one degree, finding the time to truly develop these skills is hard. We would all love to know and understand all of the newest research, but reading articles can be tedious and needlessly difficult.

I often find myself reading an article and thinking, “Ok… and? So what?”. Two average clinicians (who are not experts in the subject) can read the same article and come out with completely different understandings of its contents. Now this can be a good thing, of course, when the researcher and the clinician gravitate to different details of an article, but not so much when clinicians have different understandings about what is important to their practice, how to use it, and why.

Often I find articles that I think would transfer well into my practice, but I can’t quite grasp how. For example, an article may claim “Music Helps People Grow More Hair” and you think “Perfect! I have been working with clients who want to grow hair!” You go to the article and read the whole thing and come out more confused about how rhythm stimulates scalp follicles than when you went in. To be fair, transparent reporting has certainly improved through tools like the Intervention Reporting Worksheet. Even so, it is almost impossible to understand all aspects of complex research in which you haven’t studied all the subject material leading up to a concept. Often the specific information you need isn’t even contained in the article.

We spend a lot of time learning from trial and error as music therapists. If something isn’t working in a session *BAM* we’re on to the next thing. Part of our sworn oath as music therapists, however, is to always strive for informed practice. The question: what qualifies as “informed practice”? Competency 20.5 does say that we will integrate the “best available research”. Does that mean I need to have read all of the related research each time I work with a new population? And how much research do I need to read from related professions?

Compared to our sister professions such as physical, speech or occupational therapy, our body of research is still small- this growth just part of being a comparatively young profession. Few studies are actually replicated on the scale of related fields. This makes it all the more important that we pull concepts from outside of music therapy to inform our future research and our current practices. I don’t have the answer to the question of how much research qualifies “informed practice”- I’m sure it varies from population to population- the only thing I do know that we can never be too informed.

No music therapist that I have met has the time to read up on every key research study in a given area- it’s just not feasible. As I’m typing this, I’m eating lunch and listening to a song that I need to know for my next session. Sometimes it seems easiest to just read the abstracts of articles but so often that contributes to lost and misinterpreted information.

Knowing what to do with an article once you have read it is difficult enough, but how do you find the time to find it?? If you are looking for a specific answer to a question then, sure, you can easily find the information you are looking for. However, if you just want to keep current or explore a certain area, finding the things you’re looking for can be really difficult.

In my time at college and in internship, I have struggled finding answers to all of these questions. I get the feeling that consuming research will be something that I constantly have to adjust and adapt to as I move through my professional life.

Throughout my time as a student, I’ve found that discussion with others best helps me ingest and accurately digest research. Seems simple, but discussion is often overlooked or dismissed as something we don’t have time for. Talking through research studies with friends, colleagues, students in other majors, other professionals, and just about anybody I can engage has helped me learn the most. Having a friend read an article then teach me about what they’ve read, and vice versa, has a much better outcome than both of us individually reading and half-understanding two articles.

Certain tools are available to make finding relevant research easier. Some sites will email you when a researcher that you follow publishes a new paper, associations for specialties share information, Google Alerts can get you some things you need, and, of course, AMTA conferences are a great resource. One tool I have found surprisingly helpful has been social media. I had never really used it until last year when a friend of mine constructed a Twitter account for me. He set it up so that I a few accounts for news and politics, dogs, and a whole bunch of neuroscientists and researchers who are working in my area of interest. Daily, I see articles these professionals share that I would never have the time to find or even known to look for. I also get to watch real-time preliminary debate about these articles that helps me comprehend what they are and aren’t conveying. Professionals will tweet whole threads explaining the implications of their work and others will jump on and ask questions, cite related articles that back up or contradict claims being made by the first article – all in a bite sized, easily consumable format! Accounts like Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) and Auditory Neuroscience Lab (@brainvolts)  are a huge help in exploring current research. Twitter itself chips in by suggesting people for me to follow who are just starting in the field and post some interesting thoughts.

Currently, research is written for researchers. “Academic language” is, to an extent, necessary for accurately communicating details for replication and understanding precise outcomes to other researchers (such language can also become exclusionary of certain groups of people, but that is a blog post for another time). However, when people who are not researchers read articles they might not be able to fully get what they need out of it. In a perfect world, a version of research would be written for other researchers AND versions would exist written for clinicians. I recognize that multiple barriers to this process, but I think it is something worth exploring.

Ultimately, the clinician is the end of the road for research, particularly in music therapy. Researchers seek to more deeply understand things, but with the hope that this knowledge will become functional. Yet, clinicians are so rarely involved in the creation and direction of research. The ideas and opinions of the people who are on the ground implementing this information need to be the ones giving feedback and engaging in discussion about how to transfer abstract ideas from a lab into real life.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that we have all of the answers between us, we just struggle to connect the dots from my input to yours. If we could harness the ease of communication that social media platforms provide and encourage researchers and clinicians to publicly discuss research, we could increase the potential to spot areas for growth in our knowledge base and fill them. We could see researchers directly impacting clinicians and clinicians directly impacting researchers.


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