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The Complete Guide to Music Therapy

Music therapy uses music to maintain or enhance the well-being of people. The approach promotes holistic healing and may improve a person’s mental, physical, emotional, or social health.

Music Therapy: What is it?

Music therapy is one form of expressive arts therapy. Practitioners use music and music-related activities to stimulate the brain’s reward centers and evoke positive emotions in their clients. This neural stimulation may lower pain perception, improve motivation, and foster wellness. While playing a catchy tune for people in treatment may have some therapeutic effects, it is not comparable to music therapy.

Throughout human history, music has been used as a powerful tool for healing. A number of notable historical figures such as Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras have long documented the impact music has on behavior and general health. Many native tribes around the world also incorporate music into their healing arts.

The use of music in therapeutic settings came into focus after WWI and WWII when doctors noticed the positive effect music had on soldiers in recovery. These observations encouraged researchers to explore the curative powers of music in a series of clinical studies.

Music therapy was eventually developed in the 1960s. As empirical evidence in support of the approach increased over the following decades, it became widely accepted as a modern-day treatment method.

According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), clinical music therapy can only be offered by a credentialed therapist who has successfully completed an approved music therapy program. Music therapy is currently practiced in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, hospices, rehab centers, correctional facilities, and schools.

Music Therapy vs Sound Therapy

Music therapy is different from sound therapy or sound healing. Although both approaches (1) assume auditory stimulation can promote healing and (2) use musical instruments in therapeutic sessions, there are clear distinctions between the two.

A fundamental assumption of sound therapy is that everything is in a state of vibration. This means the human body—including tissues, organs, and bones—contains specific “energy frequencies.” Sound therapists assume energy frequencies that go off key in the body can be reattuned by projecting the correct frequency back into the body. This may be done by using instruments such as gongs, bells, chimes, or cymbals.

Music therapy bases its therapeutic protocol on what is currently known about the structure and rhythm of music. Clients are actively engaged in music-based activities in order to address specific health issues.

Music therapy currently has significantly more empirical support than sound therapy. However, there are clinical studies that have highlighted the benefits of sound healing.

Another difference between both approaches involves national regulation. While the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) oversees the credentialing and professional practice of music therapy in the United States, there is no comparable organization that regulates the professional practice of sound therapy in the country.

Music Therapy Theory

Music therapists recognize the multitude of roles the brain plays in human life. Essentially all intrapersonal and interpersonal activities are associated with the workings of the brain. Proponents of music therapy are strong supporters of the mind-body connection. They believe that by stimulating certain brain areas with music, they may elicit desired mental, emotional, social, or physical responses.

How Does Music Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?

Music therapists posit that human brain activity can be intentionally influenced with music. For example, clinical studies show that certain types of music may lead to the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. These chemical messengers have been linked with emotional regulation and typically make people feel better. As a result, music may be used to affect a person’s self-concept, cognition, mood, stress levels, or perception of physical pain.

How Does Music Therapy Cause Change?

Music therapy may evoke a variety of psychological, emotional, and physical changes. This is accomplished by using music to help regulate neurotransmitter secretion. Neurotransmitters have a number of functions that are associated with pleasure, happiness, pain relief, and stress relief. Unlike medications and illicit drugs, utilizing the natural chemicals in the brain does not lead to dependence or addiction.

Music with strong rhythmic elements has also been proven to affect heart rate and breathing. It may also reduce muscle tension, increase relaxation, and improve physical coordination. Practitioners of music therapy believe music has many psychological and social benefits. In some cases, music is used to help people process memories, release negative feelings, improve communication, increase drive, and strengthen social bonds.

What Happens in a Music Therapy Session?

A typical music therapy session may involve a variety of activities such as playing a musical instrument, listening to music, singing, chanting, dancing, analyzing music, songwriting, improvising music, or composing music. However, people in treatment do not need to have prior experience playing a musical instrument, nor will they be taught to read or play music by the therapist. Instruments that may be used include drums, simple harps, bells, wood blocks, cymbals, or any instrument the client already plays.

Music therapy is offered in individual and group settings. The music that is used may be selected by the person in treatment or the therapist. The therapist will ensure the type of music chosen is suitable for meeting the therapeutic goals of the client. Musical selections are generally made based on the Iso principle which states that music has its maximum effect if it aligns with the client’s current state of mind and condition.

The type of music a person plays during music therapy provides insight into his or her mental state, feelings, musical taste, and musical experience. The therapist will listen to the music a client creates in order to get a better understanding of his or her feelings and may respond by playing music that encourages positive change. The person in treatment may be asked to listen to different types of music before discussing them. He or she may also respond to the music by playing an instrument, singing, tapping, or dancing.

Music therapists may employ songwriting to improve communication skills or reduce memory loss. A person may be asked to modify a song by changing some of the lyrics or to compose an entirely new song that is centered on an emotion selected by the therapist. Drumming circles are also used as a means to relax clients, increase their heart rate, and provide a sense of belonging. To individualize the experience, the therapist may ask each member of the circle to play his or her own rhythm to express his or her emotions.

Techniques Used in Music Therapy

Numerous techniques are utilized in music therapy. However, they may be divided into two broad categories: active techniques and receptive techniques. Active techniques involve making music. Receptive techniques involve listening and responding to music.

Active and receptive techniques are often used together in treatment. They usually serve as starting points for discussing a person’s emotions and therapeutic goals.

Examples of active techniques include:

  • Playing instruments
  • Singing
  • Composing music
  • Improvising music
  • Chanting

Examples of receptive techniques include:

  • Dancing
  • Analyzing music

Does Music Therapy Work?

Music therapy is an effective treatment for many physical, emotional, and psychological concerns. The approach has been used to improve communication skills among stroke victims, improve social skills among autistic children, improve motor skills, and reduce chronic pain. Individuals who have painful memories that are difficult to talk about may express themselves in music. Music therapy is also used to help people recall memories they thought they had forgotten, express their feelings more clearly, and build strong relationships with other individuals.

What Kinds of Concerns is Music Therapy Best For?

A variety of issues may be treated with music therapy. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Brain injury
  • Depression
  • Dementia
  • Substance dependence or addiction
  • Asthma
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism
  • Chronic stress
  • Grief
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Insomnia
  • Memory issues
  • Personality issues
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Chronic pain

Music Therapy

How Are Music Therapy Specialists Trained?

Music therapists must obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy from an accredited institution endorsed by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). Music therapy courses also require at least 1200 hours of clinical training in a hospital or recognized health care center.

After the music therapy course is completed, potential therapists must take a national examination that is administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT). Only after passing this examination will individuals receive the Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC) credential and be allowed to practice music therapy professionally.

Every five years, music therapists must complete 100 recertification credits or retake the national CBMT exam if they wish to continue offering music therapy services. This ensures competent practice among therapists and high-quality services for the general public.

Concerns/Limitations of Music Therapy

Although music therapy has generated remarkable results for many people, it is rarely used as a singular remedy for severe psychiatric or medical illnesses. In most cases, it is used as an adjunctive therapy to alleviate pain or some of the symptoms associated with complex ailments. This means severe conditions may require medication or additional therapeutic interventions to foster long-term health.

Music therapists also need to ensure the type of music used in treatment is appreciated by the client. If a client strongly dislikes the music used, it may increase irritation and slow the recovery process.

Important Practitioners in Music Therapy

Music has been used as a therapeutic tool for thousands of years. Individuals who have made major contributions to the development of modern-day music therapy include Oliver Sacks, Paul Nordoff, Clive Robbins, Gertrude Orff, and Helen Lindquist Bonny.

Oliver Sacks

Dr. Oliver Sacks was a renowned British neurologist and best-selling author. In 1960, he earned his medical degree from The Queen’s College—a constituent college of the University of Oxford, in England. Sacks’ books contained many detailed case studies of people with neurological issues and his interactions with them. He firmly believed music is tied to the human experience.

In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Sacks wrote about the power of music and its ability to move people from the peak to the pit of their emotions, and back again. He stated that humans are a musical species and responsiveness to music is a part of our basic make-up. He also shared a variety of music-influenced life experiences, including the story of how music helps a group of children with Williams syndrome to lead fulfilling lives.

How to Find a Therapist

Music therapists offer services in a variety of therapeutic settings. Individuals who would like to work with a music therapist may contact their medical care provider for a referral.

What Should I be looking for in an LMHP?

Licensed mental health providers are trained to assist people with a range of mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues. However, not all mental health professionals may be right for you. Ask your therapist about his/her experience in treating your condition. Other important qualities to look for include:

  • Strong communication skills
  • Good listening skills
  • Empathy
  • Warmth
  • Encouraging approach
  • Willingness to work with you
  • Positivity

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

Here are a few questions to ask a potential music therapist:

  • Do you hold the Music Therapist-Board Certified credential?
  • What is your experience in offering music therapy?
  • What issues do you think I have?
  • Is music therapy the best treatment for these issues?
  • Do I need any other treatments?
  • Do I need to take any medications?
  • How long does treatment last?
  • Is there anything I can do to help myself?
  • Do you have any brochures I can read?
  • Do you accept my insurance?

Find a Therapist Now

Individuals who notice negative changes in their thoughts, behavior, or relationships, or simply need someone to talk to, can consult a licensed mental health professional online at ThriveTalk today. ThriveTalk offers a dedicated team of compassionate therapists who can help you cope successfully with your concerns and enjoy a more rewarding life right now.

Final Thoughts on Music Therapy

Music is therapeutic. It can help people to relax, release negative emotions, and feel more refreshed. When properly applied, music therapy can also help you heal emotional wounds, improve your communication, and live the fulfilling life you deserve.


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