6 Ways Music Can Be Damaging

New research helps us understand—and prevent—music-induced harm.

Posted Sep 30, 2020

There’s little that doubt music can have a positive impact on our health and well-being. We turn it on for motivation when exercising, we choose tunes to help set a certain mood, and we have it playing in the background to help us stay focused. But if we acknowledge the benefits of music, what about the flip side?

A recent article in the Journal of Music Therapy focused on examining the idea of music-induced harm, or MIH. First, the authors addressed the challenge of defining these two complex concepts. Harm, they wrote, is an idiosyncratic experience impacted by multiple variables. It can be deliberate (or not), self-induced (or not), experienced in different ways (emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, bodily, etc.), and impacted by other factors (such as the immediate situation). Music is also a complex construct. It can be live or recorded, passive or active, and like harm can be experienced in multiple ways—emotionally, socially, and physically, to name a few.

Although this article is not the first exploration (or even the first formal acknowledgment) that music can lead to harm, what these authors attempted to do was conceptualize how music can cause harm. In other words, they sought to develop a way of understanding MIH through identifying relevant variables and considerations. 

To do this, the authors considered a number of existing models and frameworks on topics such as contextual factors in clinical work, cultural humility, social justice, ethical decision-making, and the role of music in intervention. What emerged was a model with six major factors identified. Each provides a way of understanding how music can cause harm, which also speaks to points at which harm can be prevented. The six major factors, with some associated considerations they listed, include:

  1. The Deliverer. This is the person who selected and/or provided the music. Consider the qualifications and training of this individual, their purpose for delivering the music, their level of cultural humility and awareness, and their personality characteristics. 
  2. The Recipient. This is the person who receives the music. It can be the same person as the deliverer (i.e., through self-selected music) or someone different. Here, consider their level of self-awareness, musical training and background, personality characteristics, current emotional state, and whether or not they consented to be involved in the musical experience. 
  3. The Music. This relates to how the music was delivered, how long it lasted, how loud it was, and how it was selected.
  4. The Context. This includes the current setting (Was this in a hospital? At home? School? In a public space?), sociocultural norms and expectations, and how the music was delivered (by an individual or a group).
  5. The Interplays. This factor describes the bidirectional relationships between the first four factors—deliverer, recipient, music, and context. This is where much of the complexity lies. Considerations included with this factor include things like: What associations might the deliverer and recipient have with the music? Do any elements of the context support or threaten the recipient's autonomy? How might the recipient’s musical preferences influence their experience? What was the purpose for using the music? What is the relationship between the deliverer and the recipient? 
  6. The Harm. In this model, the authors identified seven possible types of harm: affective, behavioral, cognitive, identity, interpersonal, physical, and spiritual

Now, imagine you're experiencing an intensely negative reaction to a piece of music you hear. How might this model help you understand what happened (and keep it from happening in the future)? You might consider the following:

  • Did you have a choice as to whether or not you wanted to hear the music? 
  • Were you able to choose what music you wanted to listen to?
  • Did you like the music?
  • Were you familiar with the music?
  • Was anything else happening in that moment that influenced your reaction? Were you calm or stressed? Happy or angry? Focused or distracted?
  • Did the music remind you of anyone?
  • Who was performing the music? Do you have any connections or associations (good or bad) with that artist?

This is not an exhaustive list, but thanks to the music therapists who developed the MIH model, it provides us with a starting point for understanding how music can cause harm—and what we could possibly do to prevent that from happening. 


Silverman, M. H., Gooding, L. F., & Yinger, O. (2020). It's...complicated: A theoretical model of music-induced harm. Journal of Music Therapy, 57(3), 251-281. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thaa008