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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 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, with both adults and 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. Music therapy is also practiced in a number of health care settings, including with patients in psychiatric facilities and those in hospice, as well as with their caregivers.

What are the benefits of music therapy?

Music therapy can improve a person’s physical and psychological health in a number of ways, including but not limited to:

• Reducing stress and anxiety

• Lowering blood pressure

• Managing both acute and chronic pain

• Increasing joy and awe

• Boosting one’s mood

• Improving memory

• Helping with movement and coordination

• Facing difficult thoughts

• Regulating emotions

• Treating mental health conditions, from anxiety and depression to ADHD and PTSD

Can anyone try music therapy?

Yes! Music therapy can be helpful for all ages, including children, teens, and adults. You do not have to have a musical background to benefit from music therapy. You and your music therapist will discuss your goals, and then your music therapist will design a treatment specifically for your needs, interest, and musical ability level.

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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 skills but employs music as a tool for reflection and communication.

What are some different types of music therapy activities?

Music therapy can involve passive listening or active participation. Music therapists may have individual or group sessions that involve playing music or improvising. Other successful ways of bringing music to patients include musical games, dancing or moving to music, singing alone or with a group, and songwriting.

Can music therapy help people cope with illness?

Music can be an effective tool in managing acute or chronic pain. A study of cancer patients found that music therapy helped them deal with distressing memories and trauma. It eased their anxiety and depression, offering them emotional comfort and hope. The insights and skills developed in music therapy can help you heal.

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.

How can music therapy help with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia?

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 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.

What makes a good music therapist?

Music therapy can be a life-changer under the right circumstances. Music therapists are uniquely qualified for their profession by virtue of being musicians who are also trained therapists. In the U.S., among other places, music therapists are board-certified. As with any therapist, the fit is essential—a strong therapeutic bond can be a great asset in the patient’s progress.

American Music Therapy Association website, accessed May 17, 2022.   
The Certification Board for Music Therapists website, accessed May 17, 2022.
World Federation of Music Therapy website, accessed May 17, 2022.
Aalbers S, et al. Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews. November, 2017.
Christian G, et al. Dose–response relationship in music therapy for people with serious mental disorders: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. April 2009; (29)3: 193-207. 
Egenti NT, et al. Randomized controlled evaluation of the effect of music therapy with cognitive-behavioral therapy on social anxiety symptoms. Medicine (Baltimore). August 2019; 98(32): e16495. 
Yang W, et al. The effectiveness of music therapy for postpartum depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. November, 2019; (37): 93-101.
Sharda M, et al. Music therapy for children with autism: investigating social behaviour through music. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. September, 2019 online.