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Music Therapy

This guide connects you to information you need for research about music therapy.


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.

Psychology Today

Below are a few important facts about music therapy and the credentialed music therapists who practice it:

  • Music therapists must have a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy from one of AMTA’s 72 approved colleges and universities, including 1200 hours of clinical training.
  • Music therapists must hold the MT-BC credential, issued through the Certification Board for Music Therapists, which protects the public by ensuring competent practice and requiring continuing education. Some states also require licensure for board-certified music therapists.
  • Music Therapy is an evidence-based health profession with a strong research foundation.
  • Music Therapy degrees require knowledge in psychology, medicine, and music.

American Music Therapy 

Decorative image: piano keys.

Image Credit: Pixabay

There are various different psychological theories for musical therapy, which define the different types as we know them.

Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music

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.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics

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.

Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT)

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.

News Medical

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.

  • Music accesses emotion centers in the brain such as the limbic system. It can help us work through difficult emotions, and even discover feelings we didn’t know we had
  • Music lights up areas responsible for both speech and for singing, which happen to be on different sides of the brain. This means that someone who cannot speak may be able to sing.
  • Music touches areas responsible for attention and focus such as the prefrontal cortex. It can help lengthen attention span while playing instruments because it’s activating those critical areas.
  • Music accesses several motor pathways in the brain that are responsible for movement and coordination. It can enable someone with physical limitations to gain more control over their body and be more coordinated and steady.
  • Music creates a bond between people who play together, thereby helping to improve relationships, strengthen friendships, and bring about emotional connection.

And the list goes on!

So is music therapy a “real” therapy? You bet!

It is simply underutilized, misunderstood, and too often self-prescribed.

Harmony Music Therapy


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 Connections

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.

Frontiers in Medicine

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. 

American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

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.

VeryWell Health

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.

Evidence Based Birth

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.

Six Proven Benefits of Music Therapy:

  1. Music therapy reduces anxiety and physical effects of stress
  2. It improves healing
  3. It can help manage Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
  4. Music therapy reduces depression and other symptoms in the elderly
  5. It helps to reduce symptoms of psychological disorders including schizophrenia
  6. Music therapy improves self-expression and communication

Positive Psychology

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.

1. Overstimulation

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.

5. Anxiety

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.

Psychology Today

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Suggested Websites

American Music Therapy Association

A resource and organization dedicated to professional music therapists. 

American Psychology Association: Music as Medicine

Promotes the advancement, communication, and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives. 

Association for Music and Imagery

Devoted to advancing the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music and its adaptations. 

The Center for Music Therapy in End of Life Care

Dedicated to providing participants with a dynamic educational experience that will prepare them to serve people with advanced illnesses and their families through the continuum of end-of-life and bereavement.

Harmony Music Therapy

We believe that music can lead to great outcomes, and we use it every day with beautiful results.

Harvard Health Publishing

HHP publishes a wealth of health and wellness information through a variety of media to provide the most comprehensive, authoritative, and trusted health information available.

Music Therapy Connections

Music Therapy Connections provides individual and group music therapy as well as both traditional and adapted piano, voice, guitar and ukulele lessons for people of all ages and abilities. (Includes virtual music classes.)

World Federation of Music Therapy

The World Federation of Music Therapy (WFMT) is dedicated to developing and promoting music therapy throughout the world as an art and science. The Federation supports the global development of educational programs, clinical practice, and research to demonstrate the contributions of music therapy to humanity.



Meet June and St. Louis Children’s Hospital Music Therapist, Christy Merrell and learn about how music therapy had a profound impact on June’s recovery.