The Therapist as DJ

Photo by Frank Manno -

What does a raucous dance club filled with high-volume electronic music have to do with the near-silence of a therapy session? Quite a lot, I’ve come to find.

A few weeks back, I had the chance to watch the documentary Electric Daisy Carnival Experience, which describes a titanic gathering of electronic dance music performers and their throngs of fans in a Los Angeles stadium. As someone who avoids dancing and loud noises at all costs, this world at first felt alien to me. But the more I watched, the more I came to appreciate not only the beauty of the music, but also the relationship between the DJ and the audience. Over time, I’ve come to see that nearly everything that happens on stage has a significant therapeutic equivalent.

Reading the Crowd

One thing that can seem odd about electronic music is that, in a sense, there are no instruments. Instead, the music is composed from pre-recorded sound, most often digital files. So if the DJ isn’t playing an instrument per se, what is the difference between a famous digital music artist performing and a rank amateur walking onto the stage, pushing “play” and walking away? The difference is engagement.

In his interview, digital music artist Ryan Raddon (stage name “Kaskade”) describes the experience of reading the emotion of the crowd and then adjusting his music to meet the mood of the crowd and elevate it. Even though Kaskade is interacting with thousands, while a therapist is working with just one person at a time, the same principal applies: meet the client where they are, then help them get somewhere better.

Using the Gear

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Even though DJs don’t usually perform music on conventional instruments, the stage can still fill up with equipment. Computers, turntables, keyboards, and other more exotic interfaces connect DJs to their music and to the audience. Automation multiplies the number and complexities of sounds a DJ can generate at any given time. The machinery carries on automatically leaving the artist free to tweak and adjust the sound.

Although therapists lack the impressive stack of audio gear, we too have our technologies. As therapists, we manage complexity in our heads with theoretical frameworks. Every theory makes a number of assumptions about clients and their problems, leaving the therapist free to focus on a small set of variables that the theory predicts will make a difference. So if your therapist is psychodynamic, you’ll probably spend some time focusing on early childhood experience. If you see a cognitive-behavioral therapist, you’ll spend more time focusing on current behaviors and the beliefs that drive them. Meanwhile, if you see a behaviorist, the focus shifts to what environmental triggers encourage or discourage specific behaviors. Just as each DJ uses a different set of equipment and software, every therapist has their preferred theoretical framework.

Scenery and Lighting

One thing that the documentary made clear: music heard in concert is a completely different experience from listening at home. Going to an event like Electric Daisy Carnival is a kind of pilgrimage. People traveled from across the globe to be together to make and experience the music. When they arrived, the stadium had been transformed with lights, performers, and giant set pieces in order to create a confusing, provocative, engaging, high-volume, high-intensity experience for the audience.

Quietly, humbly, therapists have similar intent. The session is a particular time and place that clients set aside from the rest of their lives to feel and say things they might not be able to feel and say anywhere else. The room is decorated and arranged in such a way as to suggest safety and security. In this place, we pledge to accept our clients unconditionally and keep what they tell us in confidence — two things that are in short supply in the larger world.

Then the hour ends and the trip back to everyday life begins. In my own experience as a client, often the moment of change happens not in session, but while driving home in silence, when something I said catches up to me and I hear it as if for the first time.

Art of the Remix

Artists of all stripes disagree violently on the boundary between inspiration and plagiarism. Electronic music rests near the extreme of the debate that says that borrowing others’ riffs and even entire songs is creation, not stealing. In electronic music, the point isn’t to create new sounds but to combine, enhance, and transform existing sounds into new experiences.

Having read my share of psychological and therapeutic literature, I sometimes despair at the hope of finding anything truly new to say about human behavior, emotion or cognition. But then I realize that’s not necessarily my job. Like electronic musicians, the body of therapeutic knowledge is gifted to me to use with my clients. The art comes in the application.

For me, the essence of therapeutic work is listening fully to the client and leaving my mind free and open to whatever is being expressed. But then, completely unbidden, thoughts and impressions rise up from all the therapeutic wisdom I’ve encountered so far. Very quickly I have too many ideas all clamoring for attention. As if drawing from a hard drive full of audio clips, I have to select just a few of the most appropriate therapeutic tracks, lay them down in a clear order, and then “play” them into the session with just the right volume, tone and timing. If I’ve done my job right, the mood or direction shifts towards something new and more productive.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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