Music therapy is a form of treatment that uses music within the therapeutic relationship to help accomplish the patient’s individualized goals. This evidence-based approach involves techniques such as listening to, reflecting on, and creating music under the guidance of a trained music therapist.
It’s not necessary to have a musical background to benefit from music therapy. People of all ages, from children to adults, may find it is a good fit for their therapeutic needs.
When It's Used
Music therapy is often practiced one-on-one, but it can also be used in group settings, such as a hospital, correctional facility, or nursing home. It is generally most effective when used in combination with other therapies and or medications.
Music therapy can help people manage physical pain and has proven effective in treating a variety of health conditions, including cardiac complications, cancer, diabetes, and dementia. It can help:
- Lower heart rate and blood pressure
- Reduce stress
- Improve sleep
- Boost memory and cognitive function
Music can also have powerful effects on a person’s psychological health. It can influence anyone’s mood, causing a range of effects from providing comfort to soothing physical pain to boosting energy. Studies have shown that music therapy can be particularly helpful for people who have an autism spectrum disorder or depression.
Other psychological benefits of music therapy include:
How It Works
Humans have long appreciated the healing and cathartic power of music. Music taps into a primal sense of rhythm that we all possess. But modern music therapy began after World War II, according to the American Music Therapy Association. When community musicians visited hospitals to perform for veterans, the soldiers seemed to improve both physically and emotionally, eventually prompting the institutions to hire professionals for the job.
Music therapy continues to be practiced in hospitals, adding a therapeutic layer for patients hospitalized by illness or injury. It can help patients cope with emotional trauma and physical pain or feel more confident, joyful, and connected. Outside of a clinical setting, people can still enjoy these benefits, as music can stir emotion, prompt discussion, facilitate expression, and lower stress.
That power still holds when dementia or brain damage strikes. Music is processed and produced through a different pathway than verbal speech; bypassing that pathway allows patients to express themselves, communicate with loved ones, and experience the world more vibrantly.
What to Expect
After an initial assessment, a therapist will tailor techniques to fit a client's musical ability, interests, and specific needs. One approach is to create music—humming a nostalgic tune from one’s childhood, singing as part of a choir, or improvising on instruments such as the drums, piano, guitar, or chimes.
If the client is able to discuss the experience, a therapist might ask what memories the sounds provoke or what they’re feeling. The pair might listen to a song together and discuss the emotions and memories the song elicits. Or the client might write a song, which can illuminate a character or conflict in their lives or provide a cathartic release. The therapist could engage the client in breathing exercises, with or without music, to release tension and calm anxiety.
All of these exercises allow the therapist and client to explore the psychological, familial, social, cultural, and spiritual components of the person’s inner world. And clients don’t need to have any musical training or talent; the practice doesn’t focus on technical skills but employs music as a tool for reflection and communication.
What to Look for in a Music Therapist
While music therapy may not be a helpful approach for everyone, many people have found it beneficial. Start by looking for a board-certified music therapist. In the U.S., the certification process requires therapists to complete an undergraduate or master’s degree in music therapy at an approved institution, along with clinical training and a supervised internship. Therapists then must complete a board certification test. The Certification Board for Music Therapists grants practitioners the credential MT-BC (Music Therapist-Board Certified).
Seeking out a therapist with whom the client feels a connection is also valuable. Creating a strong foundation of trust and appreciation can help an individual embrace the process and find success in therapy.
You may want to ask the music therapist a few questions before getting started:
- How would they help with your particular concerns?
- Have they dealt with this type of problem before?
- What is their process?
- What is their timeline for treatment?