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.
Below are a few important facts about music therapy and the credentialed music therapists who practice it:
Helen Lindquist Bonny was a music therapist who developed an approach to music therapy that involves guided imagery with music.
Mental imagery is used to aid patients with physiological and psychological issues they may be experiencing. The patient is asked to focus on an image, using this as a starting point to think and discuss any related problems. Bonny added music to this technique, helping patients to heal and find solutions with increased awareness.
Also known as the Dalcroze Method, this is a method used to teach music to students and can be used as a form of therapy.
It was developed by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and focuses on rhythm, structure and movement expression in the learning process. This type of musical therapy is thought to greatly improve physical awareness, which helps patients with motor difficulties significantly.
Zoltán Kodály is considered to be the inspiration for the development of this philosophy of music therapy. It uses a base of rhythm, notation, sequence and movement to aid in the learning and healing of the patient.
NMT is a model of music therapy that is based on neuroscience, specifically the perception and production of music and its influence on the function of the brain and behaviors.
It uses the difference between the brain with and without music and manipulates this to instigate changes in the brain to affect the patient, even outside the realm of music.
Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins partnered together for nearly two decades to investigate the place of music in therapy, with a particular interest for disabled children.
The Orff-Schulwerk approach to music therapy was developed by Gertrude Orff to help children with developmental delays and disabilities, following the realization that medicine alone was not sufficient.
Music therapy is masked and misunderstood because our culture’s conception that the primary purpose of music is for entertainment.
Us Westerners have come to limit the real power of music by thinking of it as something we listen to for entertainment, exercise, and not much else.
But when you really sit down and consider that assumption, that music is solely for entertainment, do you really believe it?
Do you ever turn on meaningful songs when you’re going through hard time? Do you ever use music to get pumped up for something big, like a long anticipated game or race? Or do you listen to music while you exercise to help stay motivated?
If you’re like most people, you answered yes to at least one of these. Why? Because music is more than entertainment. It accesses our emotions, it energizes us, and it can even drive us to achieve more (like run farther) than we could ever do otherwise.
You may be thinking, “Okay, music therapy is just something I do for myself on my own, so I’ll self-prescribe my own ‘therapy’ by listening to my favorite songs when I’m sad. What’s the difference between that and hiring a real music therapist? It’s all just fluff and kumbaya anyway, right?”
The difference is that a music therapist is trained to take the experience deeper. Real music therapy is more than self-prescribed momentary stress relief; it’s the clinical use of music to promote real healing, lasting change, and deeper connection.
It all happens by doing more than just listening to music—it happens by creating music.
Music therapy is not just strumming a guitar or playing a drum because it sounds nice. It’s about creating music intentionally with a trained therapist who understands how to guide, teach, and support you through the process.
You create and experience music with a therapist who knows and understands your particular situation, the barriers you face, and how to navigate them.
As Board Certified Music Therapists we are uniquely trained in how to use music to make real progress.
So what makes music therapy really work? It’s all because of the way our mind and body process and respond to music.
And the list goes on!
So is music therapy a “real” therapy? You bet!
It is simply underutilized, misunderstood, and too often self-prescribed.
Music Therapy can benefit the following populations and conditions: children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly with mental health needs, developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease and other aging related conditions, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, and acute and chronic pain, including mothers in labor.
Music Therapy is not limited to children with special needs. Typically developing children can also benefit from music therapy, as it provides a solid musical foundation from which a child can build upon. It is not only an educational opportunity, but it is also an enjoyable activity that provides structure and purpose in the child’s life. Activities in a music therapy session for the typically developing child might include instrument play and/or instruction (piano, guitar, drums, hand percussion, etc.),educational concepts through music (colors, shapes, counting, etc., singing/voice instruction, movement to music, sung books/stories, and musical education.
Music Therapy and People with Dementia
Music therapy is used as a treatment for the improvement of cognitive function in people with dementia.
The intervention based on listening to music presents the greatest effect on patients with dementia followed by singing.
Music therapy improved the quality of life of people with dementia.
Music has a long-term effect on depression symptoms associated with dementia.
How Does Music Therapy Make a Difference for Persons with Mental Health Needs?
Music therapy is an efficacious and valid treatment for persons who have psychosocial, affective, cognitive and communicative needs. Research results and clinical experiences attest to the viability of music therapy even in those who are resistive to other treatment approaches. Music is a form of sensory stimulation that provokes responses due to the familiarity, predictability and feelings of security associated with it. Music therapy for clients with mental health concerns uses musical interaction as a means of communication and expression. The aim of therapy is to help individuals develop relationships and address issues they may not be able to address using words alone. Music therapy sessions include the use of active music making, music listening, and discussion.
What Does a Music Therapist Do for People With Autism?
After assessing the strengths and needs of each person, music therapists develop a treatment plan with goals and objectives and then provide appropriate treatment. Music therapists work with both individuals and in small groups, using a variety of music and techniques. A good music therapist should be able to develop strategies that can be implemented at home or at school.
Music therapy may help people with autism to improve skills in areas such as communication, social skills sensory issues, behavior, cognition, perceptual/motor skills, and self-reliance or self-determination. The therapist finds music experiences that strike a chord with a particular person, making personal connections and building trust.
Women in Labor
Researchers think that listening to music during labor might change how a person perceives pain by decreasing its unpleasantness. According to something called the Bonapace and Marchand Classification, music acts through the higher centers of the central nervous system (called the CNSC mechanism) to relieve pain. These parts of the brain are closely associated with memory and emotion. It’s thought that listening to music during labor might activate mental processes that make labor sensations more comfortable or less uncomfortable. Researchers also think that music might work by stimulating the pituitary gland inside your brain to release endorphins and increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Listening to music during labor may also promote pain relief by helping you relax, reducing anxiety, and providing a positive source of distraction during labor.
Since the earliest days of humankind, music and the power of music, has been evident to us. After World War II, a new profession entered the arena – music therapy. With far-reaching benefits and in a variety of settings, the types and methods of music therapy have had a profound impact. Used in conjunction with traditional therapies, positive psychology, and even as a stand-alone intervention, music therapy offers a variety of benefits.
Music has many benefits both in general and as clinically facilitated by a trained music therapist. But music is not a cure-all and there are problems it can create.
If you want to see me cringe, show me a picture of an infant wearing headphones or an expectant mother lovingly holding headphones around her belly. Why do I cringe? Because in both situations, the child is not developmentally ready to process the intensity of the sound stimulus. It's too much.
It's for this reason that music therapists who work in NICUs are very careful and intentional about the sound stimulus they create to support the infant's ability to thrive. It's vocal, soft, fluid, has a limited pitch range, and a simple melody. They also closely monitor the physiological and behavioral indicators for subtle signs of infant distress and respond as needed.
2. Hearing Loss
Speaking of headphones… I wonder if we'll see a spike in hearing loss in the coming decades given the increasingly ubiquitous use of headphones and earbuds. There is ample evidence supporting the connection between loud music concerts and hearing loss. What about the intense loud noises that emanate so closely to our eardrums?
3. Memory Triggering
Music is second only to smell for its ability to trigger memories. This is due in part to a long evolutionary tradition that connects a need to process sound quickly in order to survive. Clinically, there are certain situations where this can be incredibly powerful, as in cases where dementia is involved and a well-known song creates a moment of lucidity. But it can also be unwelcome and unwanted.
4. Emotional Flooding
Music has this ability to trigger powerful emotions, often in conjunction with a memory. Emotional flooding is the extremely uncomfortable feeling of being overwhelmed mentally and emotionally. It's important to recognize the signs and become familiar with coping skills if you become overwhelmed.
Not everyone likes music. And very few people like every type of music. In fact, most people I have talked with have certain genres, songs, or artists on their personal "no listen" list. Hearing that song, artist, or genre—even in an open public space—can induce negative responses physiologically and/or emotionally. This is commonly felt as anxiety.
Kimberly Sena Moore, Ph.D.