Music is a universal language that transcends a multitude of barriers. It has the ability to move people at a deeply emotional level, in ways that words and other forms of communication cannot. As a therapeutic vehicle, music can help facilitate positive change, emotional and physical healing, and personal growth in individuals of all ages and from all walks of life.
From a clinical perspective, music therapy is involves playing, creating, discussing, and / or listening to music to achieve therapeutic goals. Therapists who have special training in music therapy conduct the sessions. They observe and interact with patients in order to assess their functioning and well-being in one or more different areas, including:
- Mental / emotional health
- Physical health
- Communication skills
- Social skills
- Cognitive functioning
A skilled music therapist can use music in a variety of ways to:
- Boost self-esteem
- Improve mood
- Reduce anxiety
- Promote healing from trauma
- Increase self-confidence
- Create or improve a sense of connection with others
- Increase self-awareness
- Promote healthy self-expression
- Reduce stress
Music therapy can be an especially powerful and non-threatening medium for individuals who are traumatized, severely depressed, struggle with social anxiety, or for other reasons have a difficult time putting their thoughts or feelings into words or expressing themselves verbally in general. Because of its soothing nature, music can help them feel more relaxed. Once they feel more comfortable, they may choose to open up on their own, or be more response to the therapist’s coaxing.
History of Music Therapy
The therapeutic use of music actually dates back a few thousand years. The Bible tells the story of David playing the harp for King Saul in an attempt to relieve him of an evil spirit. In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of many things including healing, music, and song. Paintings and drawings of the Olympian deity often depict him playing or holding a small u-shaped harp known as a lyre.
In modern times, music therapy first became prominent during the World Wars. Traveling musicians would play for battle-weary soldier during war-time, as well as after the wars had ceased. Physicians, therapists, and others began to notice that the music had a powerful healing effect on these men, many of whom were suffering from severe emotional trauma and / or trying to recover from physical injuries they had sustained in battle. This spurred the development of the first music therapy programs in the country, starting in 1944. In 1950, the National Association for Music Therapy was founded, followed by the American Association for Music Therapy 21 years later. These two associations eventually merged in 1998 to form The American Music Therapy Association. The AMTA has over 3800 members today, and music therapy programs can be found throughout the U.S.
Goals of Music Therapy
The goals of music therapy will vary from one person to the next. Some of the more common therapeutic goals of this form of therapy include:
- Develop or enhance the therapeutic alliance
- Heal from trauma
- An increased sense of personal control / empowerment
- Reduce the fear and trauma associated with a hospital stay
- Create a healthier body image
- Teach and encourage coping skills
- Increased movement, dexterity, and coordination
- Reduce undesirable behaviors
- Develop team work skills
- Improve the ability to follow instructions
- Increase cooperation
- Reduce mental and physical symptoms
Benefits of Music Therapy
Perhaps one of the greatest potential benefits of music therapy is that it’s done in a relaxed, safe, non-threatening environment. Many people, especially adolescents, feel intimidated by traditional talk therapy. It can be very uncomfortable, especially for an adolescent, to sit in an office across from a therapist who may be saying little, but observing everything. Hand this person an instrument – or let them choose one from several options – and assure them that music therapy doesn’t require any musical talent or skills. Many individuals will find it easier to talk about or play the instrument (which will reveal a lot about them) than talking about themselves directly with the therapist.
Another potential benefit is that it’s a great way to build rapport with clients. Therapy is more effective when there’s a strong rapport between the therapist and client.
Other potential benefits of music therapy may include the following:
- Music is enjoyable for most people; having fun reduces stress and makes them more receptive to the process. If they enjoy therapy, they’ll be much more willing to stick with it.
- It has a wide range of applications, and can be used in a variety of settings.
- It works well with both individuals and groups.
- It encourages creativity, which can benefit problem solving skills.
- It can enhance the effectiveness of other types of therapy
- It can help alleviate nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy
- It can help alleviate pain
- It can lower heart rate and blood pressure
- It can help individuals who struggle with insomnia
- It may positively impact brain circulation
- It encourages learning
Receptive versus Active Music Therapy
There are two different modes of music therapy – receptive and active. In receptive music therapy, individuals listen to music while engaging in other activities. For example, they may do art work, make crafts, or spend the time meditating. Active music therapy, on the other hand, may involve a range of activities directly connected to music. These may include singing, playing an instrument, writing songs, or improvising.
Techniques and Activities used in Music Therapy
Music therapists have many different techniques and activities they can use to help their patients and clients. Their choice(s) will depend on their client’s needs and the goals of therapy. They include:
Playing instruments – Almost anyone can enjoy playing a musical instrument. Unlike singing, which is intimidating for those who are especially shy or self-conscious, or who can’t carry a tune, playing an instrument is often a bit less nerve-wracking. Instruments may include just about anything that makes a sound, such as a piano or keyboard, different types of drums and percussion instruments, guitar, autoharp, or a recorder. Playing instruments with other therapy clients can help improve social skills and foster positive aspects of team work.
Rhythmic activities – Rhythmic activities may include having clients tap their hands or fingers on something, snap their fingers, clap their hands, or move their body rhythmically. They can do this along with the teacher (who’s leading the clapping, tapping, etc.), to music that’s playing, or create their own. This is a great technique for reducing anxiety, improving coordination, and promoting movement.
Singing – Most people enjoy singing, especially in a group. Singing alone, with the therapist, or as part of a group can help boost self-esteem and self-confidence, enhance social skills, improve the articulation of words and sounds, and develop better breath control. It can also teach team work, improve cooperation, and increase social skills in a group session.
Songwriting and composing – In addition to requiring the use of creativity, songwriting and composing music can be very therapeutic forms of expression. Song lyrics have been used for centuries to tell stories. Song lyrics, melodies, and musical style all provide a glimpse into the heart and mind of the person who wrote them. This technique can provide valuable information for a music therapist.
Listening – Simply listening to music can be very therapeutic. It can help reduce anxiety, facilitate emotional healing, and boost cognitive and attention skills. Listening to soothing music can also calm a busy mind and reduce stress.
Discussion – Sometimes music therapists will have clients talk about the music they’re singing, playing, creating, or listening to. Discussion can include how the music makes them feel, whether or not it brought up any particular thoughts or memories, or what they thought about the meaning of the words. All of these things can provide valuable information for the therapist with regards to a client’s emotional state, thought processes, progress in therapy, cognitive skills, ability to focus and pay attention, and self–awareness.
What to Expect
As mentioned previously, music therapy may be done on an individual basis or in a group setting. As with other types of therapies, there are unique advantages to both. Music therapy can be done in many different settings, including the therapist’s office (although noise level may impact the activities or types of instruments if there are adjoining offices), inpatient settings, residential treatment facilities, mental health clinics, nursing homes, prisons, and schools.
The music therapist will typically talk to the client (or the custodial parent or family member, if the client is a child or other individual who is under someone else’s custodial care) to obtain background information, medical or mental health history, and to determine if the client is an appropriate fit for music therapy. If music therapy is being done in combination with another type of mental health therapy, the therapist will get written permission from the client (or parent) to talk to the therapist, obtain relevant information, and discuss treatment goals.
Therapy sessions can vary in length in frequency depending on the therapist, the setting, and the treatment goals. For example, music therapy sessions may be 3 to 5 days a week in a hospital, residential treatment facility, or nursing home, for example. Outpatient sessions may take place just once a week. Sessions may last for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or an hour, depending on various factors. The length of time in therapy will depend on various factors including the client’s progress and the focus of treatment.
During a session the therapist will usually encourage the client or clients to engage in some form of musical activity, such as playing an instrument, singing, or doing a rhythmic activity. Reluctant clients will be encouraged, but never forced to participate.
If music therapy is prescribed by a mental health or medical professional, it might be covered by insurance. Check with your insurance company before starting therapy to find out if there is coverage, and if so, how much and for how many sessions.
Disorders, Conditions, and Issues that can Benefit from Music Therapy
Because of the universal appeal of music, as well as the many applications of music therapy as a form of treatment, it can be used to treat and benefit many different life problems, issues, conditions, and disorders. They include:
- Attachment issues in children
- Grief and loss
- Learning difficulties / disorders
- ADD / ADHD
- Developmental delays
- Low self-esteem
- Autism spectrum disordersTraumatic brain injury
- Neuro-degenerative conditions
- Coordination problems
- Postpartum depression
- Postpartum anxiety
- Postpartum pain
- Pain issues
- Nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy
Music therapy is often combined with other forms of treatment, particularly for mental health conditions. If you think you or a loved one would benefit from music therapy, talk to your doctor or therapist to see if this would be an appropriate option for you.