‘In other words, hold my hand’ – intimacy in and with music

“When people get older, they don’t experience physical contact the way they used to when they were young. When I sing, I can literally feel the caress of the breath of the others close to me; I can feel us all breathing together, being close and intimate in the harmonies” (Davidson and Maddern 2012: n.p.)

We love this passage from Jane Davidson and Philippa Madderns’s study of ‘the power of singing’. It reminds us that intimacy is a life-long need. It also underlines how intimacy can take a variety of forms – filial, platonic, erotic, familial. Intimacy, as the various therapeutic and self-help literatures tell us, may involve sexual activity, but it may also not. it can be experiential, emotional, intellectual, non-sexual-physical (feeling the ‘caress of the breath of others’), creative, spiritual – and much more in between. And intimacy is manifested in relation to many different media – verbal, physical, visual, material, and, as we describe here, musical.

In Care for Music we’ve seen different forms of intimacy spring up in (seemingly) unlikely places and between what we might have thought of as unlikely partners. We think that, like water, intimacy adjusts its shape and size to fit the spaces where it flows, or can flow. And we’ve seen how music sculpts those spaces. We’ve been observing how, within our fieldwork settings, intimacy flows, takes shape, and is tapped by different people in different ways. We think there might be quite a lot to learn about how, even in extremis, there is care for intimacy – fostered through care for music.

We’re increasingly intrigued by how music kindles intimacy and how intimacy can be musically expressed, and here we follow other music therapists who’ve charted this terrain (Procter 2013). Our work in Hill House suggests that music seems to work by offering cues or aesthetic ‘nudges’ toward certain kinds of conduct, gesture, role and action style. Music seems to work here more or less as it does in other scenes of everyday life where music frames and lends a sense of occasion to spaces or activities (think of background music in restaurants or shops, think of ‘setting a scene’ with music at home). The difference, of course, is that here, when Gary’s offering a musical session, he’s closely attentive to the unfolding scene, and he takes often highly deliberate measures to nurture aspects of that scene. This is not to say music ‘makes’ people act in certain ways (or that Gary can or would ‘manipulate’ music for this purpose). It is to say that we respond, often in patterned ways, to music in a manner that is grounded in ‘deep’ forms of embodied learning, laid down after years of exposure to, and social engagement with, music.


In previous projects and published work, Tia has considered music in retail outlets, sports classes, pubs and restaurants. She even shadowed volunteer shoppers who, despite knowing in full the purpose of the exercise, found themselves drawn in to musically-mediated modes of feeling/acting despite themselves. Tia has also written about music as sonic resource for sexual intimacy (DeNora 1997; 2000), a theme since taken forward by others as (in these playlist times) empirical studies of ‘music for good sex’ (van Bohemen, den Hertog and van Zoonen 2018).

Tia’s essay was recently re-issued in the current edition of Transpositions, along with a reflection on the piece 24 years since it appeared. in the conclusion to the reflective piece she says:

“To me, at the time, the really interesting question was one that examined the culture/nature and culture/action relationships in real – and often micro – time and real situations and scenes. It was a question oriented to how fragments of culture, molecules of meaning or semiotic particles, often reworked or misheard/misunderstood (creatively appropriated, in other words), can propel our actions, and our embodied processes. Music seemed like a good thing to think with for this project because of the ways it can actually be seen to linger, or hang around in, bodies – and in ways that show up as embodied processes of movement, comportment and stylistic orientation, and because of course, though the ways it models, or makes, time (Ansdell 2014). These days, in our Care for Music project, the team is looking at this question in relation to community music therapy and in scenes of late life, and from the perspective of embodied cognitive processes. These processes can, even in situations where profound dementia plays a part, be relied upon to quicken actors and actions and in ways that forge connection and bonding, and generate pleasure, meaning, and joy – and reorganise embodiment, sometimes within a second. Not always, of course, but in all cases the question remains: how does culture get in to actin and facilitate social situations, encounters – and embodiment(s)?”

Most of us, albeit for different reasons and in different places and life stages, have, at one time or another, turned to music for support in carrying out what we need, or want, to do (think of music for running up a hill [DeNora 2000]). While we might exact conscious deliberation when we turn to music (‘what music would be best for getting me up the hill?’), by the time we’ve put on our running shoes and actually started to run we’re in what we might call ‘action-mode’. By that time, our responses to our music will involve and depend upon pre-conscious, non-verbal capacities, ones that allow us effectively to ‘become’ the music (we ‘become’ the music’s perceived/felt speed or power as we run and the temporal parameters of our running becomes – musicalised). That kind of ‘becoming’ arises, in other words, from a felt sense of resonance or fit between music’s properties, its prior connotations or memories, and action/feeling in the here and now.


We have seen how music in Hill House seems to offer affordances for intimacy. By this we mean we see how different actors, care staff, family members, residents gather music into their actions, and gather their actions into music. They are tapping opportunities, licence, pretexts, signals, permission, musically offered, for what we might think of as ‘touching’ moments of closeness, and in ways that sometimes but not always involve physical touch – hand holding, hugging, the stroking of an arm, a gentle pat, or even virtual gestures o such things, a smile, close eye contact.

Sometimes these small physical acts are explicitly musicalized, as when hands are held and can be observed to move in time to the music’s pulse, or as when, right on cue to the lyrics of Fly Me To The Moon (Let me see what life is like/On Jupiter and Mars/In other words, hold my hand….), one resident reaches over and holds the hand of another. 

In some cases, it is only when ‘inside’ music that such intimacies are possible. For example, here are two passages from Gary’s practitioner log. Both of them describe interactions between long-married couples (Couples a, b and c) where, in each case it is the husband who is ‘living with dementia’:

You are My Sunshine… There’s a line in this song – You’ll never know dear, how much I love you – which today I catch several different couples around the room making nonverbal use of, to communicate an intimate message to their partner in a very touching way. With [Couple a] there’s such a look of love at one point, and I’m fairly sure it correlated with this line. With [Couple b] I see eye contact, hands clasped and just a feeling of enacting this line’s sentiment. And then with [Couple c] just the same. This important phenomenon is one of specifically placed words and sentiments within songs allowing the nonverbal timing and placing of enhanced intimacy in this context.”

“A touching sequence in the song Falling in love with you, which caught the mood of today. It involved [Couple b]. He was especially awake and smiley today, affectionate toward her, holding her hand, often in musically motivated ways that created micro moments when he’d look towards her lovingly. This happened poignantly within the song, and I could see what enormous pleasure and relief this gave her.”  


In the introduction to her book, The Psychology of Intimacy, Karen Prager offers an example of two solitary hikers both pausing at a viewpoint to admire the majesty of the mountains. Their eyes meet, there is a flash of intimacy, a mutual recontiion of a shared love of the mountain and the vista. Everyday conceptions of intimacy, Praeger argues, are often defined too simply as mutual verbal disclosure within an ongoing relationship (1995:12), a definition resonant of the self-actualisation associated with Giddens’ (1993) ‘pure relationship’. But as Prager points out, in this example, no words areexchanged; these people’s paths – quite literally – never cross again. Their moment of intimacy is fleeting – but it is real – and it has been fostered through a shared care for, in this case, the mountains.  

As with mountains, so with music. Music is, in other words, is a place and a modality within which ‘closeness’ between people (who have never met before, who might not remember they have met before) can be achieved and without need for verbal communication. But perhaps unlike a shared love for mountain hiking, love and care for music can be pursued – as our colleagues working in our hospice sites find time and time again – right up until the very end of life, and certainly long after cognitive memory ebbs. So, intimacy, taking the shape of closeness and warmth and connection between people, is always possible – and music can be a conduit for that flow.


Ansdell, G. 2014. How music helps: in music therapy and everyday life. London: Routledge.

Davidson, J and P. Maddern. 2012.  The Power of Singing. Pp in J. Davidson and R. Prince (Eds), Singing Emotions:Voice from History. Crawley WA : ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of WesternAustralia. http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/media/258780/singing-book.pdf

DeNora T. 1997 Music and Erotic Agency: Sonic Resources and Socio-sexual action (Body & Society (republished inTranspositions https://journals.openedition.org/transposition/6261

DeNora, T. 2021. Reflections on Music and Erotic Agency. Transpositionshttps://journals.openedition.org/transposition/6268

DeNora, T. 2000. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, An. 1993. The Transformation of Intimacy. Cambridge: Polity.

Praeger, K. The Psychology of Intimacy. 1995. London: The Guildford Press.

Procter, S. 2013. Music therapy : what is it for whom? An ethnography of music therapy in a community mental healthresource centre. Phd Thesis, University of Exeter. 

Van Bohemen, S, L. den Hertog and L. van Zoonen. 2018. Music as a resource for the sexual self: An exploration of how young people in the Netherlands use music for good sex. Poetics 66, pp. 19-29.

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