Rhythm in the asylum: Priscilla Barclay and the development of Dalcroze Eurhythmics as a form of music therapy’

Wednesday 8 March 2017, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Dr John Habron

For Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950), his method of rhythmic gymnastics (known in Anglophone cultures as Dalcroze Eurhythmics) could be summed up on the five digits of the hand: music, movement, the theatre, arts in education and therapy. Priscilla Barclay (1905-1994) was one of many Dalcroze Eurhythmics practitioners whose work encompassed all of these, but focused on the last.

Barclay studied Dalcroze Eurhythmics in 1920s-30s Paris and London, going on to teach at a progressive school in Belfast. During World War II, she enrolled at the Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, Bristol. Barclay also studied the somatic practice Eutony, which itself grew out of the heritage of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, and in 1958 helped found the Society for Music Therapy and Remedial Music.

Barclay was a pioneer, establishing the first music therapy service in the UK, at St Lawrence’s Hospital, Caterham, in 1956. This paper explores the role of rhythm in her work, specifically how she employed musical rhythm in many guises (duration, metre, phrasing, form) to elicit and support sensation, movement, flexibility, sociability and imagination in the patients. Some aspects of their embodied experiences of music and the changes that Barclay witnessed can be gleaned from photographs, essays and case studies.

Through Wellcome Trust-funded archival research, this paper uses primary and secondary sources to construct a narrative around Barclay’s work. Her life spanned crucial periods in the development of child-centred education, occupational therapy and music therapy as well as the gradual dismantling of institutional care in large psychiatric hospitals. She was an actor in each of these fields, developing a complex hybrid identity as musician, therapist, instrument-maker, educator, and promoter of both music therapy and Dalcroze Eurhythmics. Barclay’s contribution, until recently unacknowledged, was to bring rhythmic movement into the heart of provision for those with learning disabilities and mental illness.


Dr John Habron is Head of Music Education at the Royal Northern College of Music and Senior Research Fellow in the MASARA (Musical Arts in Southern Africa: Resources and Applications) research group at North-West University, South Africa. Having trained initially as a composer, John has gradually moved into transdisciplinary research across the areas of music education, music therapy and the medical humanities. John convenes the International Conference of Dalcroze Studies (Coventry, 2013; Vienna, 2015; Québec City, 2017) and chairs its Scientific Committee. In his practice as a part-time music therapist, he works mainly with people with dementia.

Location: Sally Baldwin D Block D003