Interview / Music Therapy

‘Improvising music is a major part of the participant experience’

By lou trimby, Tuesday Dec 10, 2019

Images from Steven Kelynack   

Professor Leslie Bunt is an internationally respected music therapy practitioner, trainer and researcher. He is currently Professor in Music Therapy at the University of the West of England, the first such position in British university. He was awarded an MBE in June 2009 for services to music therapy.

His reputation has grown over 40 years, working in the UK as an experienced registered music therapist with children and adults of all ages and both nationally and internationally as a music therapy trainer, supervisor and researcher. Leslie founded The MusicSpace Trust, a registered charity promoting music therapy, with the first community-based centre opening in Bristol in 1991. Bristol 24/7 spoke to Leslie about music therapy, MusicSpace and the projects he is currently involved with.

When did you begin working in music therapy?

After a period of music teaching, I trained in music therapy at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London from 1976-7, with one of the leading pioneers Juliette Alvin. I then worked at the Child Development Centre, Charing Cross Hospital, both as a therapist and researcher, as part of the team directed by consultant paediatrician, the late Dr. Hugh Jolly. These early experiences led to me completing my PhD in 1985 at The City University. This was the first PhD in music therapy at a British university.

My research focused on the effects of music therapy for children with special educational needs. Additionally, during this early part of my career I facilitated many workshops for teachers and other professionals on the therapeutic uses of music for children and young people. These early experiences as a music therapist, trainer and researcher were the foundation of all my subsequent work in the field.


Can you briefly describe how music therapy can benefit individuals?

Music therapists use sounds and music as part of evolving therapeutic relationships to support and develop emotional, physical, cognitive, social and spiritual needs for people of all ages. Improvising music is a major part of the participant experience which requires no previous background in making music, therapists adapting the music to the person when working individually or in small groups. Listening to music and songwriting are also used by music therapists in their work.

The evidence for the benefits of music therapy is increasing. Positive effects are being evaluated across the lifespan for wide-ranging health and social care needs and are being reported more regularly. For example, the benefits for people living with dementia are mentioned in the current NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines.

You helped to establish the MusicSpace Trust in Bristol, can you tell us a little about what the charity does?

After moving to Bristol in 1982 I continued to work with pre-school and school-aged children and began to explore how music therapy could benefit adults living with mental health issues, cancer, dementia or profound physical and learning difficulties.

An increase in my teaching and research roles enabled me to work with another leading paediatrician, the late Professor David Baum. In supporting me, alongside an amazing group of Trustees and Patrons, to set up a community-based music therapy charity, The MusicSpace Trust. MusicSpace opened its first centre at The Southville Centre, Bristol in 1991. Children and adults attended the centre for sessions, and therapists worked in local nurseries, schools, specialist units, day centres and hospitals. MusicSpace liaised with the University of Bristol in setting-up the first part-time music therapy training. In 2006 the course evolved into a three-year part-time MA based at UWE Bristol, where it is part of the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences.

MusicSpace expanded as a network of five centres across the country until, during the mid-90s, over 50 therapists were seeing around 1300 children and adults per week. Changes in the management of each centre resulted in the different centres becoming their own charities. The team at Bristol MusicSpace now continues to see around 400 children, young people and adults every week, with the therapists working at the centre and throughout the region.


Bristol24/7 relies on your support to fund our independent journalism and social impact projects. Become a member and enjoy exclusive perks from just £5 per month.


Could you tell us a little about the STALWARTS project?

I am currently Professor in Music Therapy at UWE Bristol, where I am part of the teaching team for the MA in Music Therapy and where I base my research. Since the early days of my career I have always been interested in sharing skills and empowering other professionals to use music more in their work. Since 2015 UWE Bristol has been a partner in two European-based projects, funded by the Erasmus+ initiative. The first called LINK (Learning in a New Key) was a collaborative project involving universities, a music therapy centre and schools in Italy, Poland, Portugal and the UK. LINK brought together groups of researchers and creative arts therapists in training teachers on how music and the creative arts could be used to support children and young people living through the effects of adverse life conditions, particularly early trauma.

The many positive results and resources from LINK led to the successful Erasmus+ funding of a second project called STALWARTS (Sustaining Teachers and Adults with the Arts). The major priority for this new project was to transform the exploratory work from LINK into university-accredited new modules for teachers and educators supporting vulnerable young people in the classroom. Colleagues from Italy, Portugal and the UK continued in this project and were joined by partners from new schools and universities in Estonia and Norway. As with LINK the outcomes have been positive: all universities have set up the modules, and teachers and educators have enrolled on the first runs or trials. The teachers and educators carried out over 100 classroom enquiries, some of them informed by cutting-edge knowledge in neuroscience and music and the arts. Over 400 children and young people benefited directly from the work of STALWARTS; over 200 teachers and educators were empowered to use music and the creative arts more frequently in their classrooms. 500 participants attended public events in each of the five countries where the results of the project were shared with teachers and educators from outside the partnerships as well as regional and governmental representatives. There is scope for further development and future runs of the university-based modules.

As coordinator of the STALWARTS project across the 10 European partners I have become even more convinced of the importance of music and the creative arts for supporting vulnerable children and young people. There are not enough creative arts therapists to see everyone who needs this kind of specialist support, but therapists can share their skills in empowering teachers and educators to feel more comfortable using music and the arts in the classroom. I had originally moved from teaching to train as a therapist after observing the beneficial effects of music in the classroom. And some of my work has now come full circle with the STALWARTS project.

What other music related activities do you participate in?

Music therapists in the UK continue to their work as musicians, be it as an orchestral or jazz musician, songwriter, performer or teacher. I studied conducting as part of my music degree at Bristol University in the early ‘70s, and since returning to Bristol have been conductor of the AMICI Chamber Group, Bristol Opera Company, Bristol Phoenix Choir and Nailsea Choral Society.

How can people find out more about music therapy?

To find out more about music therapy in the UK, including about training opportunities, please visit the website of the British Society for Music Therapy at:  For MusicSpace visit:

There is an informative online journal about music therapy, which can be accessed here:  For information about the STALWARTS project please visit the forthcoming website: For more information about Leslie’s work please visit:

Related articles