What Is Music Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 31, 2022

Music therapy is a therapeutic approach that’s designed to help patients complete a variety of goals. It’s an established medical profession and should always be performed by a board-certified music therapist. 

Music therapy can help people of all ages work through many different types of problems. It’s always tailored to an individual patient’s needs. 

The technique has been very effective at addressing physical, emotional, social, and cognitive issues. Luckily you don’t need any musical talent or background to successfully engage with music therapy. 

Who Can Benefit From Music Therapy?

There are a number of medical conditions that music therapy can help with, like heart problems and depression. 

People who can benefit from music therapy include: 

  • Troubled adolescents. Young adults with many different types of issues might find it easier to express themselves through music instead of sitting and talking to a stranger. Music therapy can help teens with behavior and mood disorders, anxiety, and traumatic experiences in their pasts.
  • Newborns. Music therapy can even help newborns in neonatal intensive care units. It can help them develop neurologically and get them used to stimulation. It can also lower their family’s stress levels. 
  • Veterans and active service membersMany of these people have undergone a lot of trauma in their past and can find it easier to express themselves through music. 
  • People with Autism-spectrum disorders (ASD). People on this spectrum have unique learning requirements. The structure and routine of music therapy are great ways to interact with people with ASD. 
  • People with Alzheimer’s diseaseThere are aspects to music therapy that create patterns of familiarity and help with memory issues.
  • Trauma victims. Trauma can increase your anxiety, stress, and pain — all things that music therapy can help you learn to manage. 
  • People with physical illnesses. People with diabetes, heart conditions, and cancer have all benefited from music therapy. It can be effective for many other physical conditions as well.
  • People with mental health disorders. Music therapy can help you explore your thoughts and feelings and improve your ability to express your concerns. 
  • People in chronic painChronic pain often leads to increased levels of depression, stress, and anxiety. Music therapy can help with all of these side effects. 
  • People with substance use problemsResearch has shown that music therapy increases motivation and self-esteem. This can help you overcome some of your substance use problems. 

What Are the Benefits of Music Therapy?

The benefits that you’ll get out of music therapy depend on your goals. You should start your sessions with an honest discussion with your music therapist about what your problems are and what you want to improve on. 

The benefits can be very widespread and affect your emotional, physical, and social health. 

Examples of music therapy benefits include: 

  • Decreased feelings of isolation, depression, or anxiety
  • Increased levels of self-expression
  • Improved self-confidence
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Improved sleep
  • Distraction from and even reduction of pain
  • Improved motor development
  • Improved coping skills
  • Decreased effects from dementia
  • Improved communication skills
  • Increased opportunities for positive interactions with loved ones

There’s no set timeline for music therapy. Some people can get the effects that they want from a single session. Others will need to regularly meet with their music therapist until they feel that all of their goals have been reached. 

What Does a Music Therapist Do?

Music therapists engage with their patients through music. They use the process of interacting with music to further their patient’s goals. This can involve playing instruments, singing, dancing, listening to music, or writing your own songs. 

Music therapists can work at particular hospitals, schools, or nursing homes. They may also have private practices and travel to locations where they’re needed. 

They may choose to conduct their therapy sessions in groups or one-on-one. 

All music therapists need at least a bachelor’s degree and 1,200 hours in a clinical internship. To become board certified, they also need to pass a certification exam. This helps ensure that all music therapists understand the standards of their field as well as the ethical boundaries that are necessary for all forms of therapy. 

What Are Common Music Therapy Techniques?

There are many different ways to conduct music therapy, but they generally fall into four broad categories. These include: 

  • Improvisation. This is a technique where you’ll make up the music as you go. You can play anything that you’re comfortable with or sing. The goals of this type of music therapy include identifying and working through specific emotions and establishing non-verbal communication. This can pave the way to great verbal communication later on. 
  • Re-creative. With this technique, you’ll learn to re-create a pre-existing musical form. This can also include activities and games that are designed to accompany the music. For example, you might find yourself dancing out certain roles. Some of the goals of this technique are to improve your memory, attention, and sensorimotor skills. It can also help people perceive, interpret, and communicate the thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Composition. With this form of music therapy, you make your own music in some way, shape, or form. For example, you can write your own songs or make your own music video. Goals for this technique include the ability to structure your own thoughts and feelings in a way that others can understand. It can also help with decision-making skills. 
  • Receptive. This involves listening to the music and responding to it in your own way. Responses can be internal, verbal, or written. Your therapist may choose particular pieces, or the music could be performed live. Your focus will depend on the goals that you want to accomplish. Goals for this type of music therapy can include increasing your relaxation, developing auditory skills, or facilitating reminiscences and connections to places, events, or other people. 

No single music therapy technique is right for everyone. Depending on what you’re hoping to accomplish with the therapy, your therapist may choose to use all four categories in your treatment. 

What Is the History of Music Therapy?

The idea of using music in medicine has been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Western medicine has been experimenting with the idea since the early 1800s, but the theory wasn’t put into widespread medical practice until after the second world war. 

The U.S. war department officially defined the term music therapy in 1945. It was first used to help military service members who were recovering in hospitals. Music was incorporated into their occupational therapy and physical reconditioning. 

Michigan State was a bit ahead of the military, though. They created the first music therapy degree program in 1944. Many other universities soon followed suit with programs of their own. 

Today, music therapy is an accepted form of therapeutic treatment all around the world. It continues to grow in popularity and is currently incorporated into many different programs at hospitals and other facilities. 

Show Sources


American Music Therapy Association: “History of Music Therapy.” 

Cleveland Clinic: “Music Therapy.” 

Stanford Children’s Health: “What is Music Therapy?”

Wong, A. Music Therapy in the Medical Setting, State University of New York, 2020. 

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