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What Is Music Therapy?

When someone thinks of therapy, they will usually invoke the idea of someone sitting on the famous couch, talking to a therapist who is listening intently and taking notes. 

In reality, there are dozens of different approaches to therapy, and utilizing music is just one example of something called expressive arts therapy.

It is well known that music can easily and significantly influence human emotions and behaviors. The differences in language, tempo, tone, and sound level will result in various natural emotional, mental, and physical reactions. 

So with this in mind, it’s a fairly simple jump to incorporating music into therapy. Despite being relatively new, the results have been overwhelming, and the proof of effectiveness has been well documented. 

What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Expressive arts therapy utilizes various forms of creative expression such as writing, drama, dance, movement, painting, or music in order to help a person explore and transform difficult emotional and medical conditions. While this form of therapy is relatively new when compared to more traditional methods, it is nonetheless highly effective. 

One of the most challenging aspects of talk therapy is that a patient has to talk about painful and difficult subjects. For many people, this can be extremely difficult, and for others, impossible. 

Expressive arts therapy gives a therapist another way to “talk” with their patients non verbally. The creative process and end results will offer invaluable insight into their emotional state of mind that otherwise may have been impossible for them to express with words. The techniques and specific treatments will vary wildly depending on the art being used, but the goal is the same — to find a better way to communicate with the patient, such as through the use of music.

What Is Music Therapy and How Does It Work?

One of the most common examples of expressive arts therapy is music therapy. In this version of therapy, music is used as a tool to help improve and maintain the physical, psychological, and social needs, well-being and overall wellness of an individual through a range of activities such as listening to music, singing, and playing an instrument. 

A trained therapist will help to facilitate the sessions that most often take place in hospitals, physical rehabilitation centers, schools, correctional facilities, nursing homes, and hospices. 

Music interventions can be very beneficial to all individuals partaking regardless of age or musical talents. For people who may have issues with expressing themselves verbally, music can be a great alternative to traditional talk therapy. Additionally, through clinical practice, music evokes positive emotions and stimulates reward centers in the brain, so several mental health conditions can be positively influenced through music, helping people to potentially open up emotionally and even help in developmental growth in children. 

Here are some of the symptoms of mental health disorders and other medical conditions that music therapy programs and music listening can help treat and have been proven through music therapy research:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Autism
  • Dementia
  • Mood related disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse and dependency
  • Personality issues and disorders
  • Insomnia

Music therapy services have also been shown to provide positive results for individuals with intellectual or physical difficulties as well. The symptoms of brain injuries, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer and hypertension have also been treated using music therapy with positive results. Music is also frequently used as a therapeutic technique and within a therapeutic context to help reduce stress levels and pain perception for women in labor.

 Along with these positives and their therapeutic relationship, music is also known to greatly improve these characteristics and impairments in patients as well:

  • Self-esteem
  • Self-concept
  • Verbal communication skills and overall improve communication 
  • Prosocial behavior
  • Socialization skills
  • Group cohesion
  • Coping skills

What to Expect in a Music Therapy Session 

For every unique individual that undergoes music therapy, there will almost certainly be a unique treatment created so it’s hard to say exactly what to expect. One thing for sure is the music therapy will include both active and receptive techniques to varying degrees to help improve quality of life.

In the beginning, they will certainly both be utilized as a starting point for the discussion of feelings, values, and goals, but over time one may begin to be the focus over the other. These techniques are defined as follows: 

  • Active: When a person is engaged with the making or creating of music. Anything that includes singing, chanting, playing a musical instrument, composing, or improvising music will all fall under the category of active music therapy.
  • Receptive: When a person is listening to or responding to music. By verbally discussing and analyzing lyrics or silently through dance they are responding to music and engaged in receptive music therapy. 

Music therapy is highly adaptive and can be conducted with a single person in a private practice or a group of people and the music can be chosen by the therapist but also the person or persons in therapy. However, part of the role of the therapist is to ensure that the type and mode of the chosen music is appropriate for meeting the needs and goals of the individuals in therapy. 

Often the therapist will introduce music based on the “iso principle,” which states that music is more likely to have an influence on someone if it matches their current condition. 

As a result, the therapist will try to ensure lyrics and melody are well-matched with the psychological state and mood of the individual undergoing therapy. One of the more commonly used tactics in music therapy is songwriting by either writing original songs or modifying existing ones. 

The therapist may provide an emotion or topic to serve as a starting point, and the patient will change words or lines in a song, add new verses, or write new lyrics altogether to match the tune. These lyrics can then be discussed, analyzed, and explained helping to provide additional insight into the thought and emotions of the patient. 

A History of Music Therapy 

Although the concept of using music as a potential healing influence is at least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato, music therapy didn’t begin in earnest until the early 20th century. 

The aftermath of both World War I and World War II led to communities of musicians — amateur and professional — traveling around to veteran hospitals to play music for those suffering physical and emotional traumas. As a result of the patient’s noticeable positive responses to the music, doctors and nurses began to request that their hospitals hire musicians in full-time roles. Soon it became clear that the hospital musicians should have some form of prior medical training before entering the facility in a medical profession and demand grew for a regulated college curriculum. 

In the 1940s, three people became instrumental in the development of music therapy as an organized clinical profession through clinical training to enhance patients cognitive skills.

Psychiatrist Ira Altshuler, MD, was a huge voice in the advocacy of music therapy and heavily promoted it in Michigan for over three decades. 

Willem van de Wall used music therapy in state-funded facilities and in 1936 wrote the first text of music therapy called Music in Institutions.

E. Thayer Gaston became known as “the father of music therapy” based on his work to move the profession forward from an organizational and educational standpoint.

Michigan State University established the first academic program in music therapy in 1944, which offered music therapy degrees such as bachelor’s degrees and soon, other universities followed suit. Since then, there have been a few different associations founded for and by music therapists. Most notably among them were the National Association for Music Therapy (founded in 1950), the American Association for Music Therapy (founded in 1971), and the Certification Board for Music Therapists (founded in 1983). 

In 1998 a merger between the National Association for Music Therapy and the American Association for Music Therapy united and formed the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) which is the largest single music therapy in the United States and represents music therapists in over 30 countries worldwide. 

The Takeaway

Music therapy is an expressive art therapy that uses musical elements to help improve the physical, emotional, and mental health of a person, as well as the communication between a therapist and a patient.

The healing properties and positive effects of music have been known for about as long as music has been around. Whether actively creating and participating in music or receptively listening to and enjoying music, the positive effects that music creates can be highly beneficial in terms of mental health and therapy. While the concept of music therapy itself is only a few decades old, music has been used to the benefit of humans for centuries. 

Meeting with and talking to a qualified therapist can be a great benefit to anyone in need of mental health treatments, but for some, it may not be a tangible option for a variety of reasons. For people that may have issues with verbal communication and expression, expressive art therapy would be a great option either by itself or as part of traditional therapy. While writing, painting, and dancing also have positive influences on the individual, it can be hard to top the positive reaction that music provides. If you or anyone you know could benefit from a board-certified music therapist then seek advice from your healthcare provider or someone within the health profession.


  1. FAQ‘s | Frequently Asked Questions (musictherapy.org)
  2. Influence of Music on the Behaviors of Crowd in Urban Open Public Spaces (frontiersin.org)
  3. History of Music Therapy (musictherapy.org)
  4. The Benefits of Music Therapy (verywellmind.com) 
  5. 9 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Iso-Principle: The Introduction” (musictherapytime.com)

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