Music therapy incorporates techniques such as listening to, reflecting on, and creating music to improve a client’s health and well-being. Immersing people in music can allow them to more easily express themselves, identify and process difficult experiences, develop social and communication skills, or simply find emotional release.
The practice is led by a board-certified music therapist and can occur in individual or group settings. It’s often used in combination with other therapies or medications.
When It's Used
Music therapy can be used for a variety of conditions, and with adults or children. The practice can help people suffering from anxiety, depression, and trauma to illuminate or express underlying sources of pain. Those with autism can improve the ability to communicate and socialize through music therapy's structured setting, activities, and relationship. The therapy is also practiced with patients in psychiatric facilities and those in hospice, as well as with their caregivers.
Music therapy can be especially powerful for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and brain damage due to stroke or traumatic brain injury. Musical experiences—particularly singing songs from the past—can open a window to expression and emotional awareness, temporarily allowing those clients to express themselves, gain awareness of their emotions, and make connections with their loved ones.
What to Expect
After an initial assessment, a therapist will tailor techniques to fit a client's 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 the sounds remind them of 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 skill but employs music as a tool for reflection and communication.
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 Look for in a Music Therapist
Find a board-certified music therapist. In America, 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 pass a board certification test. The Certification Board for Music Therapists grants practitioners the credential MT-BC (Music Therapist-Board Certified) which appears next to their name.
Seeking out a therapist with whom the client feels a connection is also valuable. Creating a strong foundation of trust and appreciation can help embrace the process and find success in therapy.