What is Music Therapy?

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When I let clients know that I’m board-certified as a music therapist, I often get the question: “What exactly is music therapy?” Because music is experiential, I find it most helpful to start by sharing what music therapy might look like:

  • Listening to a song within the safety of the therapeutic environment to elicit an emotional response and encourage processing of a traumatic experience.
  • Taking some deep breaths in and exhaling out loud, exploring the vibrations and sensations of different vocalizations, connecting to and getting curious about the sound of your own voice.
  • Rewriting some of the words to a favorite song to tell your story of personal growth and healing.
  • Finding your groove while playing a drum or xylophone with a group, experiencing the healing power of rhythm and connecting to others.
  • Closing your eyes and relaxing in your seat, letting the therapist guide you through a music-assisted relaxation exercise.

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Music therapists work in a wide variety of settings including nursing homes, hospitals, schools and outpatient clinics. In the area of mental health, music has many benefits including emotional, cognitive and spiritual well-being.

Music Therapy and Emotions

Most of us have had the experience of responding emotionally to music, maybe getting chills while listening to a beautiful orchestral piece, feeling validated and understood by the lyrics of a favorite song or feeling a strong sense of connection and belonging while hearing your voice blend with the voices of others in a choir or while singing along to a live performance of your favorite band. In a therapy setting, the emotional power of music can be harnessed to access a wide range of feelings in a safe and supportive way.

While we know that music certainly elicits emotions, music can also act as a powerful tool for regulating our emotions. From an early age, we are soothed and calmed down by the sing-song voices of our caretakers and lulled to sleep by lullabies. The capacity of music to calm or invigorate isn’t just for infants. Research shows that our bodies respond physiologically to music, which affects our nervous system, heart rate and breathing.

Music Therapy and Cognition

Music therapy has been shown to help clients experiencing learning disabilities, memory difficulties, communication deficits and thought disorders such as schizophrenia. Music is inherently grounding and organizing, and its repetition and cyclical nature can aid in development and/or rehabilitation of functions such as speech and gross motor skills.

Music also impacts memory and is widely recognized for treating Alzheimer’s and other related dementias.  Remember how you learned your ABCs and the 50 states? More than likely, you sang them before you said them.  Music is actually processed throughout the whole brain and it’s not uncommon to have strong memory associations with favorite songs. These musical memories are preserved even for those affected by dementia.

Music Therapy and Mindfulness

In addition to triggering strong emotional responses and memories, music has the power to bring us more fully into the present moment. Clients will often comment on how the music we play or listen to together helps them focus on what’s happening in the here and now, allowing them to experience a feeling or relax more fully than just words alone.  

I still smile when I recall a client telling me that he “knows the secret to music therapy…you play music and we forget about our problems!” While this is not exactly the case, and I certainly don’t advocate avoidance, it’s true that we can easily become so problems-focused that we forget about the health, the good, that’s already there. Music therapy is inherently strength-based in this way and calling upon our strengths can help us address the problems that are there with more confidence and resourcefulness.

If you are interested in learning more about music therapy or finding a music therapist, please visit  https://www.musictherapy.org/. Also consider reaching out to The Light Program’s intake department. Several music therapists work within the organization so you can let your intake counselor know if music therapy is something you’re interested in exploring.