Guided Imagery through Music (GIM) Bonny Method in Psychotherapy.

By Gerry O Farrell 

The Bonny methods of Guided Imagery through Music (GIM) is a therapeutic method of assisting clients reach a deeper layer of their psyche and bring the material to conscious awareness for understanding and integration. It was developed by Helen Bonny following her work with Stanislav Groff and Walter Pahnke of searching for methods of internal explorations in the early 1970s.

In this article I would like to explore some of the defining issues of the Bonny Method of GIM as an introduction to GIM. I first came across working in altered states of consciousness (ASC) through the medium of Holotropic Breath work. My experience was that although the work was very beneficial in moving me forward in my own personal process, it did not appeal to me. I was on the look out for a therapy that would allow me to work in ASC in a gentler way. After an introduction to the Bonny Method of GIM by a colleague, I undertook a series of sessions. I found the process very interesting as I felt supported and encouraged by the music to explore my subconscious. The interaction between me as the client, the music and the therapist was both unique and supportive. The music is regarded as a co-therapist in the process.

In this article I will examine Helen Bonny, the founder of the Bonny Method of GIM, and how her background in music and spirituality led to the development of GIM. Then I will go through the components of a Bonny Method GIM session, the prelude, induction, music and postlude. Helen Bonny and others have developed programmes of classical and modern music which are played throughout a GIM session. I have found it very interesting and useful to analyse these programmes to understand the journey the client is travelling. In GIM the client is referred to as the traveller, the therapist as the Guide and the session as Travel. I examine Denise Groarke’s (2002) analysis of the programme entitled ‘Peak Performance’ a programme to which I have travelled and found very useful. The Bonny method of GIM is being used as a form of psychotherapy with a variety of clinical and non clinical conditions. I will also examine the type of client suitable for GIM work.

Helen Bonny and The Bonny Method of GIM

Helen Bonny came from a musical and spiritual family. She initially learned to play the piano and later in third grade, she took up the violin. She entered the music therapy field in her forties after she had raised a family. Earlier in her life she had what she described, as a musical experience. On the 21st of September 1948 having travelled to Kansas to listen to a Dr Frank Laubach, a Protestant missionary returned from the Philippines, she was persuaded to play at a service that night:

“All went well until the prepetition of the first theme. Then everything changed. It was as if the violin was not my own; bow arm and fingers were held in abeyance/obedience to a light and wonderful infusion that created an unbelievable sound I knew I had not ever produced before. ………….I was trembling when I finished and as I sat down I began to shake even more violently. Then I heard Dr Laubach words “That violin was so beautiful, I cannot speak. Let us meditate for a while. …I found a word to describe what I was experiencing. Conversion. But with music?” (Bonny 2002: 6)

This experience opened her mind to new experiences in music that eventually led her into qualifying as a music therapist. In 1970 she worked in the Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre with Stanislav Groff and Walter Pahnke. It was her job to select the most effective musical accompaniment for each treatment.

“During this period, I was to learn not only what music to use, but how to use and adapt unique guiding techniques for effective therapy when the client was in a deeply altered state of consciousness.” (Bonny 2002: 9)

They found that music complements the therapeutic objectives in five interrelated ways:

  1. 1. By helping the patient relinquish the usual controls and enter more fully into his/her inner world experience
  2. 2. By facilitating the release of intense emotionality
  3. 3. By contributing towards a peak experience
  4. 4. By providing continuity in an experience of timelessness
  5. 5. By directing and structuring the experience. (Bonny & Pahnke 1972)

Coming from a spiritual training background she was greatly influenced in her own therapy by Maslow and Rogers:

“It was the work of Abraham Maslow and humanistic psychotherapy with an emphasis on self-actualization, in developing abilities in perception, feeling, intuition, and the importance of emotions which gave me direction.” (Bonny 2002: 6)

Helen Bonny went on to develop specific programmes of classical music to enable working with clients to assist them to reach  a deeper layer of their psyche and bring the material to conscious awareness for understanding and integration

Training and dissemination of the materials became the next phase of development and Helen Bonny set up the Institute of Consciousness and Music (ICM) in 1973. The first definition of GIM was published in 1986 by Clark and Keiser:

“Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) is a method of self-exploration in which classical music is used to access the imagination. It includes listening to classical music in a relaxed state, allowing the imagination to come to conscious awareness and sharing these awareness’s with a guide. The interaction among listeners, music and guide is what makes GIM unique. The GIM experience can lead to the development of self-understanding, the ordering of the psyche and the achievement of spiritual insight” (Clark and Keiser, 1986 p 1.) (Clark 2002: 17)

In 1988 the ICM closed and the training and development of the Bonny Method GIM was taken on by the newly formed Association for Music and Imagery (AIM). AMI-endorses training in The Bonny Method around the world through 17 AMI-endorsed training programs based in 8 different countries. AMI Fellowes are currently practicing in 29 states in the U.S. and in 25 countries in North America, Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand (AIM 2009).

What is the Bonny Method GIM ?

The Bonny method of GIM can be used in an individual session or group setting with clients. Kenneth Bruscia breaks down the individual Bonny Method of GIM to the following components:

  1. 1. an Individual Form
  2. 2. of self exploring consciousness (e.g. in healing psychotherapy, self development, spiritual work)
  3. 3. which involves spontaneous imaging
  4. 4. in an expanded state of consciousness
  5. 5. to predesigned programs of classical music
  6. 6. while interacting with a guide
  7. 7. who uses non-directive, non-analytical, music based intervention
  8. 8. within a client-centered orientation
  9. 9. all within a session that has a preliminary conversation relaxation/induction, guided music imaging experience, return and postlude discussion

These nine components must be present to be considered a pure Bonny Method GIM session. (Bruscia 2002: 46)

Components of a GIM Session

The therapist is termed the “guide” and the client the “traveler” in GIM.

1. Prelude is primarily a verbal discussion. The therapist discusses issues that the client may like to explore in the session. Mandala drawing or other art materials e.g. clay are often used to assist in this process. It is a gathering of biographical or historical information about the client, their personal musical history and goal setting for the session. For first time clients it is an important time to have the processes of a GIM session explained. When appropriate, the therapist and client co-create the initial focus for the session. The purpose of the focus is to move from Induction to the Music (see below) .This is done by sourcing a theme or image (e.g. walking in a garden or beach) which is agreeable to the client. Some images can be disagreeable to clients, therefore the co-creation is important. This image is the stepping off point for the client when the music begins and is the only direct imaging the therapist does throughout the session. The Prelude is not a counseling session. Its aim is to move to the central music part of the session, but it is an integral component of the GIM session.

2. Induction to the session is a short relaxation exercise without music. The aim of the induction is to help the client relax, lessen their defenses and to move into an altered state of consciousness. The client usually lies on a couch or mat on the floor. Blankets and cushions are used to assist with the clients comfort. The therapist sits close to the client’s head but without physical contact. The induction helps with establishing rapport and the beginning of the more intimate stage of the session. The induction prepares the client for the transition to the music. Although we are used to listening to music with our ears and minds, to move to a more conscious listening requires relaxation and concentration.

“Relaxation means muscles are in tonus; a balance or equilibrium which brings homeostasis to the body. Concentration is the process of attention, a focus on one stimulus to the exclusion of other; it does not involve cerebral thinking but rather an openness to the inflow of suggestion verbal and/ or nonverbal such as music. Therefore they work together; relaxation brings about the ability to effect concentration, and concentration affecting the ability to relax”. (Bonny 2002: 87)

3. Music stage of the session then starts with the image agreed in the prelude and the music being played. The client allows his or her imagination to flow freely and to explore whatever experience comes up. If a client is having difficulty imaging Contained Spontaneous Imaging can be used, which is when the therapist presents images (e.g. family home) and invites the client to follow the image (e.g. into the various rooms in the house). The images are contained in the matrix of the house (Bruscia 2002). The client is encouraged to relate to the therapist his/her feelings, fantasies, visions or impressions. The therapist dialogues with the client throughout the session, making notes of the piece of music being played, the therapist’s interventions, body movements and the client’s responses. It is important that the client is supported and directed by the comments of the therapist.

“Throughout her writings, Bonny (2002) has consistently advocated that a non directive stance be taken by the guide or therapist when dialoguing with the traveler during the music listening portion of the session and that the entire session be approached within the humanistic or transpersonal traditions” (Bruscia 2002:53)

The therapist listens to the music at all times and uses it to support and empathise with the client. The therapist’s prime responsibility is to guide the client (or traveler) to the music. To achieve this, the therapist must have a deep understanding and knowledge of the music and also be aware of the potential positive and negative transferences of the music and the imagery. The therapist facilitates the unfolding of the imagery with a range of cross modal verbal and non verbal interventions and reflections aiming to help contain, facilitate and deepen the client’s experience and process. The original Helen Bonny music programmes last approximately 35 to 50 minutes and throughout this time the client remains lying on the couch or mat. As the programme draws to a close the therapist gently reintroduces the client to a more externally orientated state.

4. Postlude facilitates returning to the external orientation and reviewing the session. It supports the client in making connections between images experienced during the music and with the discussion in the prelude. The images may be new ones and the postlude can assist with connecting them to life experiences. Art work and mandalas’ are used to assist with this integration of symbols, impressions or images with the therapist. The transcript of the session can be used to review the session and the client is supplied with a copy. The postlude can take up to an half an hour and it is important that the client is grounded prior to leaving.

Music Programme Analysis

The music programmes used in a GIM session are one of the vital parts of the client work. The music is described as the co-therapist. The programmes are a recorded sequence of classical music selections which constitute the backdrop, terrain and very fabric of a GIM experience (Abrams 2002: 317).

To understand the GIM process it is useful to analyse the music programmes. Helen Bonny designed eighteen music programmes and they have been added to by a number of world renowned Bonny Method GIM specialists. Programmes of modern music are also being developed. A typical music programme entitled Positive Affect is as follows:

Elgar:           Enigma Variations (#8- W.N. & #9 Nimord)                      4:00

Mozart:       Vesperae Solennes de Confessore (Laudate Dominum)     4:00

Barber:        Adagio for Strings                                                                   6:21

Gounod:      St Cecilia Mass (Offertoire and Sanctus)                               7:53

Strauss R:   Death and Transfiguration (excerpt)                                    4:00

Total 26:14

Denise Grocke (2002) analyses the programme of Elgar’s Variations stating a positive mood for the beginning. Its melody ascends, then falls back and then ascends again. In an interview by her with Helen Bonny in 1995, Bonny comments that “this music is pushing, then giving a little breath, as in expand-exhale-expand”. Variations #9 starts with a slow regal melody that is hymn like and sustained and moves to a climatic tympani roll with emphasis on trumpets and then dies away quickly.

Mozart’s Vesperae brings another gentle stage of ascending and descending melody. The string introduction is gentle and inviting, the soprano voice enters as an extension to the strings with the same positive and sustaining mood. The choir enters with a harmonic version of the theme that gives a layer of support particularly with the lower voices. The piece ends with gentle descending note.

Barber’s Adagio is the central piece in the programme. Its main characteristic is the intense build to the climax point and the plummeting down of the strings following the climax. Bonny (2002:310) felt that the piece could achieve “a catharsis-type experience, in which flood gates of feeling are opened and exposed, is possible and desirable here.”.

Grocke describes it as though being on a roller coaster in that the listener cannot escape the intensity of the build up and the intensity of the pause followed with the reentry of the strings and pianissimo.

Gounod Offertorie is a respite after the intensity before being plunged back into the intensity of the Sanctus. Bonny explains her selection of this piece by:

“Probably one of the most intensely religious vocal pieces in Western music, the ‘Sanctus’ provides an ideal stimulator for peak and oceanic experiences. The variety of solo, choir and instrument sounds creates an enormous auditory effect when a GIM listener is in a deep state of consciousness. In fact it is difficult not to react to its intensity. (Bonny 2002: 310)

Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration “continues on with the peak experience with “majestic and lofty heights and returns to the listener to a quiet, restful ending(Bonny 2002 :311)

Programmes classified as being for beginners are gentler programmes. Positive Affect is an intermediate programme for reasonably experienced GIM clients. Programmes entitled Death and Rebirth or Mostly Bach are for the more experienced clients.

GIM and Psychotherapy

The Bonny method of GIM has been used as a form of psychotherapy with a variety of clinical and non clinical conditions. Clients’ ego strength and defenses are an important factor in deciding on the use of GIM in a therapeutic situation. It is not suitable for clients with psychoses, as GIM will reinforce psychotic thinking. Clients with healthy ego strength will benefit greatly from full Bonny Method GIM in assisting them to uncover deeper issues and personal development. Summers (1988) identified the types of clients best suited to GIM as those that:

  1.     I.   Are capable of symbolic thinking
  2.     II. Can differentiate between symbolic thinking and reality
  3.     III. Are able and willing to report their experience to the therapist
  4.    IV. Can achieve positive growth as a result of the GIM therapy

The main goals for using GIM in psychotherapeutic application are to assist the clients with re-experiencing trauma in a safe container and releasing feelings of grief, anger and being stuck. Goldberg (1995) writes:

“The value of GIM therapy is in the depth, speed and relative ease of the work. It enables clients to wrestle with deep-seated conflicts more quickly than in most other therapies by bringing them to conscious awareness in a manner that they can tolerate. Many issues are worked through in the context of the session itself. The holding environment created within the music experience lowers anxiety and allows clients to deal with deeply repressed or highly conflicted material.


I have found GIM a very useful therapeutic process for working with clients. I also use it as a means to deepen my own process work and for personal development. It was developed by a remarkable woman who has a deep understanding of the human spirit and how it can be moved by music. We all have experienced some song or piece of music that has moved us to joy or sadness or some other emotion. Helen Bonny through GIM has developed a method for using this musical power to help clients move to a deeper state of consciousness and to gently recall trauma and in turn  assist with healing.

Gerry O Farrell IAHIP is an accredited psychotherapist working in private practice in Castleknock Dublin. Visit He is a Level 3 GIM trainee studying under Professor Leslie Bunt of the UWE, Bristol.


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AIM website www.

Bonny Helen (2002) Music & Consciousness: The Evolution of Guided Imagery and Music, Barcelona Publishers

Bonny H. & Pahnke, W. (1972) The Use of Music in Psychedelic (LSD) Psychotherapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 9 (2), 64 – 87

Burscia K (2002). Boundaries of GIM and Bonny Method in Burscia K & Grocke,(Eds). Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond. Barcelona Publishers.

Clark M (2002) Evolution of Bonny Method of GIM in Burscia K & Grocke, D (Eds). Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond. Barcelona Publishers

Goldberg F (1995) ‘The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music‘ in T Wigram, B. Saperton & R. West (Eds), The Art and Science of Music Therapy: A Handbook: Reading, U.K.: Harwood Academic Publishers

Grocke, D (2002) The Bonny Music Programs in Burscia K & Grocke, (Eds). Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond. Barcelona Publishers

Summer. L (1988) GIM in the Institutional Setting. St Louis, MO: MMB Music