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Music Therapy for our Soldiers

A white paper on music therapy and the military

My first non-familial encounter with veterans was as a soon-to-be sophomore in college, two days shy of moving to Iowa City as a transfer student and new music therapy major. I had just learned about music therapy and had spent the past month turning my life upside-down to transfer to the University of Iowa to embark on my new-found journey.

Two days before the big move I had the opportunity to observe a music therapy session at the VA hospital in Topeka, Kansas. I was ushered into a room, where I took a seat around a pedestal table large enough to seat ten. The top of the table was not made of wood or plastic, but was a drum head. Staff members started wheeling in these old men and sitting them around the drum table. Most were hunched in their chair, some made small talk with each other or said hi to me, but for the most part the group was quiet and still. Soon the session was underway. The music therapists who facilitated the session—David Otto and Dr. Alicia Clair—led the group through a series of what seemed like musical games on the drum table. We tapped our fingers and played with different sounds the drum could make. Group members answered questions, looked at each other, laughed together.

I don't remember most of the details from that session, but as a newbie to the field—so new that I had yet to take my first music therapy class—I noticed the effect the music and the music therapist-led interventions had on the veterans. Playing together around that drum table caused them to physically relaxed, helped them make eye contact with each other, smile and laugh together. What started as a bunch of individuals sitting around a drum table ended as a warm and relaxed group, engaged with each other and sharing a common experience.

I have since learned that in the United States, the history of the music therapy profession is rooted in military service. During WWII, volunteer musicians played in hospitals as a way to boost morale amongst veterans through listening, music performance, and music-based leisure activities (Boxberger, 1963). The music therapy profession owes a great deal to these volunteer musicians. Not only did they pave the way for considering a more holistic treatment approach, but it was through their observations and acknowledgments that they needed professional training to continue this work that the first music therapy training programs were created and the first music therapy professional organization, the National Association for Music Therapy, was launched (Davis & Gfeller, 2008).

Nearly 65 years later we have come full circle. Next Monday, the American Music Therapy Association will unveil a white paper titled Music Therapy and Military Populations: A Status Report and Recommendations on Music Therapy Treatment, Programs, Research, and Practice Policy. The purpose of this paper is to describe music therapy research and practice as it relates to military populations, including active duty, veterans, and their families, and make recommendations for future research, practice, and program development policy.

Here are some highlights from their report:

"(The) U.S. War Department issued Technical Bulletin 187 in 1945 detailing a program created by the Office of the Surgeon General on the use of music for reconditioning among soldiers convalescing in Army hospitals. This program demonstrated how music could be incorporated in multiple therapeutic services including recreation, education, occupational therapy, and physical reconditioning." (pg. 6)

"Music therapy provides a safe milieu for those who are wounded, ill, or injured to (a) nonverbally express their inner thoughts and feelings, and (b) support verbal processing of thoughts and reactions. Through engagement in music that accommodates their cultural differences and musical preferences, service members are motivated to pursue varying levels of self-disclosure, a process essential to recovery…It is not uncommon to see recovery progress much more rapidly once the service member has developed mechanisms to cope with traumatic memory." (pg. 8)

"Music therapists (currently) provide services to military personnel, their families, service members in transition, and veterans nationwide. These music therapy programs are on bases, in military treatment facilities, in VA healthcare facilities, in communities, and elsewhere." (pg. 14) Model music therapy programs can be found at facilities such as the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (Tucson, AZ), Resounding Joy, Inc. (San Diego, California), the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (Bethesda, Maryland), the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (Bethesda, Maryland), the Institution for Therapy through the Arts at the Music Institute of Chicago, and Veterans Affairs Facilities nationwide.

"'Therapy is hard and painful, but writing a song and performing can be the breakthrough therapy someone needs. 'I was able to merge the horrible experiences with the happy ones through music in order to help other veterans,' Jason Moon, Wisconsin." (pg. 24)

"Credentialed music therapists are integral to treatment programs across generations and among those who are receiving care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Music therapists provide interventions that enhance physical, communication, cognitive, psychological, and socio-emotional functions that lead to the best possible quality of life for individual patients. They design music experiences to facilitate community transition and to provide opportunities to acquire, practice, and assimilate new skills into the 'new normal' following disease or injury." (pg. 25)

"Music therapy programs exist in VA hospitals in 27 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, DC." (pg. 25)

"(S)upport for research in music therapy across the military continuum has been inconsistent and episodic...Given the complex nature of service members’ clinical presentation and needs, replication of high priority studies merits consideration. Study replication also contributes to our understanding of various interventions’ feasibility and generalizability of findings. This is especially important where the military is experiencing patients with high priority signature conditions (e.g., TBI, PTSD), high volume conditions, and highly problematic presentations (e.g., polytrauma)." (pg. 28)

"Over the past 20 years there has been an important expansion of collaborative research among music therapists, other health professionals, and neuroscientists aimed at examining the neural substrates of human response to music…Ground-breaking work is informing and refining music therapists’ interventions for service members with signature injuries. Music therapists with advanced practice training in neurology, neuroimmunology, and neuropsychoimmunology are making a difference in rehabilitation settings in cooperation with interdisciplinary teams." (pg. 28-29)

If you are interested in learning more about music therapy and military populations, please check out the white paper yourself (launch date is Monday, March 3, 2014) by following this link.

And if you have a story to share related to music therapy and the military, please let us know by commenting below.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Boxberger, R. (1963). A historical study of the National Association for Music Therapy, Inc. In E. H. Schneider (Ed.) Music Therapy, 1962 (pg. 133-197). Lawrence, Kansas: National Association for Music Therapy.

Davis, W. B. & Gfeller, K. E. (2008). Music Therapy: Historical Perspective. In W.B. Davis, K.E. Gfeller, & M.H. Thaut (Eds.) An Introduction to Music Therapy: Theory and Practice (3rd ed.) (pg. 17-39). Silver Spring, Maryland: The American Music Therapy Association.

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