Music Therapy: Changing the Tune of Your Life

What is Music Therapy?

Therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals (American Music Therapy Association). After evaluating the strengths and needs of a patient, the qualified music therapist determines the appropriate treatment, which can include creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music.

Music therapy is effective for 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. If you’re thinking, “that sounds like it could be effective for anyone,” you’re right.

“When we look at the body of evidence that the arts contribute to our society, it’s absolutely astounding. Music Therapists are breaking down the walls of silence and affliction of autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.” ~Michael Greene, President & CEO of NARAS

When was it established?

The idea of music as a healing influence that can affect health and behavior has been around at least since the time of Aristotle and Plato. It developed in the 20th century after musicians all over the country to play their music in Veterans’ hospitals for veterans suffering from physical and emotional traumas from WWI and WWII. After doctors and nurses in the Veterans’ hospitals saw noticeable responses, both physical and emotional, to the music, doctors started requesting musicians to be hired for hospitals. The demand grew so much the job became a college curriculum, with the first music therapy degree coming out of Michigan State University in 1944. Today, anyone who completes an approved college musical therapy program, including an internship, is eligible to sit for the national exam offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

Why choose Music Therapy?

Our brains and our bodies have been conditioned to entrain music from- literally- the day we were born. Day-old infants have been shown to detect differences in rhythm, which is why using lullabies and rocking movement to calm unhappy babies is effective. Music therapists can use music to help a child learn to communicate or help someone who’s had a stroke re-learn how to talk again because listening to or singing music with lyrics uses shared neural circuits as listening to and expressing speech. Music also taps into our memories, emotions and attention, giving people the ability to process the past, express old, current or new emotions effectively and increase their ability to learn and retain new things.

One recent study took six healthy female volunteers and exposed them to a standardized psychosocial stressor after assigning them to three different conditions prior to the test: 1) relaxing music, 2) sound of rippling water, 3) no audio stimulation. Upon receiving the stressor, researchers studied stress perception and anxiety, salivary cortisol and respiratory arrhythmia (heart rate in synchrony with breath). They found that listening to music prior to a standardized stressor predominantly affected the autonomic nervous system (in terms of a faster recovery), and, to a lesser degree, the endocrine and psychological stress response.

How has it been used in Real Life?

According to the American Music Therapy Association, credentialed music therapists have used music therapy:

  • With Congresswoman Giffords to regain her speech after surviving a bullet wound to her brain.
  • With older adults to lessen the effects of dementia
  • With children and adults to reduce asthma episodes
  • With hospitalized patients to reduce pain
  • With children who have autism to improve communication capabilities
  • With premature infants to improve sleep patterns and increase weight gain
  • With people who have Parkinson’s disease to improve motor function


Resources: American Music Therapy Association, Brain HQ
Photos courtesy of Pixabay

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