Music Therapy During the Great Depression

The Effect of the Great Depression on Musicians and Music Educators
Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration (WPA)
Music Therapy as a part of the Federal Music Project (FMP)
Report From a Panel of Experts in 1937

The Effect of the Great Depression on Musicians and Music Educators

During the 1930s, America experienced a blow to the economy that put between 12 and 18 million men and women out of work. The relief efforts of President Herbert Hoover, and at first Franklin D Roosevelt both placed a focus on manufacturing businesses rather than the arts. They failed to see that the Great Depression was hitting individuals employed in the arts much harder (Davis, 1997).


The large numbers of unemployed individuals during the Great Depression included many out-of-work musicians

In 1927, new technology allowed for films to have sound. Previously, musicians were hired to perform in theaters and provide music for silent films. In 1931, an estimated 10,000 theater musicians were unemployed due to the emergence of sound in film. Theaters were able to stay in business as they purchased sound films to show and eliminated the musician payrolls (Bindas, 1988). Musicians in professional orchestras experienced increased poverty as the number of performances decreased. Many private lesson teachers lost their students as parents could no longer afford such a luxury for their children. Lastly, public schools cut music programs from the curriculum, putting teachers out of work (Davis, 1997).


Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

Works Progress Administration poster

President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his first term in 1933 with the firm belief that the Federal Governments should assist the unemployed in finding new jobs. As a part of his New Deal, Roosevelt passed a federal relief program known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) on May 6, 1935. One of the projects under this administration was the Federal Music Project (FMP).  The primary goal of this project was to provide training, financial assistance, and job opportunities to unemployed musicians.

Nicolai Sokoloff, Director of the Federal Music Program

Nicolai Sokoloff was named the executive director for the FMP. Sokoloff’s responsibilities included finding employment opportunities for musicians and organizing performances from which entire communities could benefit (McDonald, 1969).  He also established different categories for music-related employment opportunities. Music therapy fell under the “Teaching of music and music appreciation” category (Davis, 1997).


Music Therapy as a part of the Federal Music Project (FMP)

Poster for the Federal Music Project, part of the WPA

Settlement houses, mental institutions, prisons, schools, and medical hospitals utilized music educators and music therapists as a part of the FMP.  During the Great Depression, there were very few music therapists who were formally trained. With the establishment of recreational programs in institutions came a need for professionals in the field of music to provide recreational activities. Small chamber groups and music teachers were given jobs in institutions and hospitals to provide individuals with therapeutic music. In this way, musicians  got the opportunity to work with the nation’s ill, who in turn benefited from the exposure to music (Findley, 1973).


Report From a Panel of Experts in 1937

On March 17, 1937, the Federal Music Project sponsored a conference in New York City as a part of Music Education Week. One day was devoted to a discussion of music therapy and its benefits, and included lectures from psychiatrists and music therapists. The discussion was moderated by Frances McFarland, the Director of the Music Education Division for New York City’s FMP (McDonald, 1969).

Willem van de Wall pictured with two other music therapists

Willem van de Wall (1887-1953) wrote the leading book on music therapy practice during this time, Music in Institutions (Clair & Heller, 1989). At the panel discussion, Van de Wall differentiated between the professions of music education and music therapy, saying that educators were more concerned with the music being produced, while therapists are more focused on the client’s needs. He stressed the importance of involving medical professionals before exposing the client to music therapy. In an effort to define music therapy, Van de Wall stated: “If we can apply music in such a way that the general educator and physician will say ‘the work of the teacher is helping my patients or my students’ we may begin to say that we are using music in a therapeutic sense.” (Panel Discussion, 1937).


New York City’s House of Detention for Women, where Superintendent Ruth Collins recognized the impact of music therapy

Ruth Collins, Superintendent of  New York City’s House of Detention for Women was the next speaker. Collins talked about how funding from the WPA allowed for patients at this institution to participate in recreational music, and observed many benefits. She stressed the importance of continuing therapeutic music programs after individuals were discharged from institutions, so as not to lose its benefits (Panel Discussion, 1937).

Some books by Harriet Ayer Seymour

Harriet Ayer Seymour (1867-1944), a self-taught music therapist and author of many books on the subject, discussed how she used music to heal patients mentally and physically. In her definition of music therapy, she said, “Music therapy means the use of found that will stimulate and cheer or sooth and ally pain as the case may be” (Panel Discussion, 1937).  Seymour noted the need for schools of music therapy to standardize the profession, but indicated her appreciation to the FMP for the musicians it provided for hospitals. She believed that this should be expanded, saying, “”our hospitals would not be half as crowded if we could give all the patients plenty of music, for music is as necessary as fresh air. We look for the day when music as medicine will be universally accepted and used for the welfare and progress of humanity” (Panel Discussion, 1937). She went on to found the National Foundation of Musical Therapy in 1941 (Davis, 1997).


Child Psychiatrist Loretta Bender

Loretta Bender (1899-1987) offered the perspective of a child psychiatrist. She was an advocate of creative arts therapy and employed such practices as senior Psychiatrist at the Bellevue Hospital in New York City (Davis, 1997). Bender appreciated the musicians her hospital had been provided by the WPA. A Gestalt psychologist, Bender noted music’s ability to combine sensory, motor, social, and emotional components to impact children’s behavior. In her lecture, she cited an example of a young hyperactive boy who was often disruptive. She believed that music helped organize his personality in an appropriate fashion (Panel Discussion, 1937).

Psychiatrist Samuel T. Hamilton (1875-1951) was the final speaker. He voiced his interest for furthering research in music therapy so that greater claims could be made.  “Even if nothing were being done except to bring a half hour’s relaxation, a contribution would be made to the patient’s welfare. But more than that can be met, is being met in some places. In my opinion, in the next two or three decades, it will be met in a large number of places” (Panel Discussion, 1937).



Bindas, K.J. (1988). All of this music belongs to the nation: The federal music project of the WPA and American cultural nationalism. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toledo, Toledo, OH.

Clair, A. A., & Heller, G. N. (1989). Willem van de Wall: Organizer and innovator in music education and music therapy. Journal of Research in Music Education, 37, 166-178.

Davis, W. B. (1993). Keeping the dream alive: Profiles of three early twentieth century music therapists. Journal of Music Therapy, 30, 34-45.

Davis, W. (1997). Music Therapy Practice in New York City: A Report From a Panel of Experts, March 17, 1937. Journal of Music Therapy, 34(2), 68-81.

Findley, J. W. (1973). Of tears and need: The federal music project, 1935-1939. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

McDonald, W. F. (1969). Federal relief administration and the arts. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Panel discussion on music therapy, (March 17, 1937). Published proceedings.


By: Claire Growney


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