Music therapy involves using a person’s responses and connections to music to encourage positive changes in mood and overall well-being. Music therapy can include creating music with instruments of all types, singing, moving to music, or just listening to it.
Music has powerful effects on the mind. Different styles of music can have a significant effect on a person’s mood very quickly, and it can help them experience and process a wide range of emotions, from happiness to excitement, as well as sadness, calmness, and thoughtfulness.
Making music can also be as beneficial as listening to music, and music therapy encourages people to actively create the music they find helpful to them.
This article explains what music therapy is, how it can help improve mental health, and its effects on different mental health conditions.
What is music therapy?
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Music therapy uses the powerful abilities of music to improve a person’s well-being. It is an alternative to other types of therapy, such as counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Music therapists use a person’s responses and connections to music to encourage positive changes in mood and overall mental mindset. Music therapy can include listening to music or creating music with instruments of all types. It may also involve singing or moving to music.
It can help improve confidence, communication skills, independence, self-awareness and awareness of others, and concentration and attention skills.
Live musical interaction between a person and their therapist is important during music therapy.
Improvisation can also be a key part of music therapy. This involves making music up on the spot in response to a mood or a theme, such as making the sound of a storm using drums and a rainstick.
How does music therapy work?
The way that music affects the brain is very complex. All aspects of music — including pitch, tempo, and melody — are processed by different areas of the brain.
For instance, the cerebellum processes rhythm, the frontal lobes decode the emotional signals created by the music, and a small portion of the right temporal lobe helps understand pitch.
The reward center of the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, can even produce strong physical signs of pleasure, such as goosebumps, when it hears powerful music.
Music therapy can use these deep physical reactions the body has to music to help people with mental health conditions.
History and origins
Music has been a part of human life for thousands of years. Specifically, experts have found instruments dating back to over 40,000 years ago, suggesting that humans’ desire to express themselves or communicate through music is deep rooted.
The use of music for therapy and healing dates back to Ancient Greece, but its therapeutic use today began in the 20th century, after World War II had ended. The earliest reference to music therapy comes from a 1789 article called “Music physically considered.”
The 1800s saw medical research into the therapeutic nature of music grow, and by the 1940s, universities were offering music therapy programs. E. Thayer Gaston, one of three men who pioneered the use of music as a therapeutic tool, had organized and promoted the practice so that it would become an accepted type of therapy.
Now, there are many music therapy associations around the world, and music therapists work in private care, education, and social care.
Music therapy vs. other forms of therapy
Music therapy does not rely on verbal communication, so it can be better for people who struggle to communicate verbally. This could be due to a disability, a neurodegenerative condition such as dementia, an acquired brain injury, or a mental health condition.
As CBT and counseling are both talking therapies, they may not be suitable for people who find verbal communication difficult. This is where music therapy can be beneficial.
Additionally, mental health practitioners can bring music therapy directly to a person, such as if they cannot get out of bed or are unable to get to a therapist’s office. Enjoying music therapy at home can also benefit children who want to be in a familiar environment during their sessions.
This is not specific to music therapy, though, as many other types of psychotherapy can take place in the home.
The skills a person learns in music therapy can be useful in their everyday life, too. They may even take up learning an instrument as a new hobby, which they can use as a tool for improving their mental health and coping with difficult situations throughout their life.
There are extra benefits to listening or creating music that talking therapies may not be able to offer.
For instance, learning and practicing a piece of music can improve memory skills, coordination, reading, comprehension, and math skills, and it can also give lessons in responsibility and perseverance.
People can also enjoy a great sense of achievement from creating a piece of music, which can help improve their mood and self-esteem.
Music therapy can also introduce people to many different cultures, as clients can explore any type and genre of music during therapy. Understanding the history behind a piece of music can help people connect with the music they are hearing or playing.
Although self-expression is a part of talking therapy, music therapy allows people to express themselves in a creative way, which can be a more enjoyable way of exploring difficult emotions.
Lyric analysis is another accessible way for people to explore and process difficult emotions, experiences, or memories through music.
For example, a person can find themes and meanings within lyrics and offer alternative lyrics that apply to their life and experiences, which can help them find the words that represent how they are feeling if they are finding it hard to express this themselves.
Some of the documented benefits of music therapy include:
- improved self-esteem
- decreased anxiety
- increased motivation
- successful and safe emotional release
- increased verbalization
- stronger connections with other people
How it helps with anxiety
Many studies suggest that music therapy can reduce feelings of anxiety, including in people with cancer, those undergoing surgery, and individuals going into intensive care units. Some studies also suggest that music can reduce blood pressure and the heartbeat, which can have a direct impact on how stressed a person feels.
There is also evidence to suggest that those undergoing music therapy experience reduced anxiety immediately after the session, which indicates that music therapy could be a convenient way to reduce symptoms quickly.
Music affects the amount of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that the body releases, and reducing these hormones can help relieve symptoms of anxiety.
How it helps with depression
Studies suggest that music therapy can improve symptoms of depression, with those undergoing music therapy along with standard treatments for depression — such as talking therapy — improving more than people who only received standard therapy.
Listening to music can also release dopamine, which is a hormone that makes people feel good, and endorphins, which are hormones that can induce happy moods and relieve pain.
Although music therapy is not a cure for depression, it can offer short-term benefits by improving mood and encouraging connection and self-expression.
Some of the benefits of music therapy for children include:
- offering fun ways of expressing thoughts and feelings
- practicing social interaction and communication skills
- encouraging creative play
- improving concentration and coordination
- increasing self-awareness
- increasing awareness of other people, particularly in group music sessions
- building self-esteem and resilience
- building language and listening skills
- strengthening family relationships
Although music therapy is not a cure for any mental health condition, it can be an effective and enjoyable tool for reducing the symptoms of numerous conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Music therapy offers people a creative and accessible way of expressing their feelings and processing their experiences. People have used music for its powerful effects on mood and emotions for a long time.
Aside from helping with mental health conditions, music therapy also has numerous other benefits, such as providing a creative outlet, expanding knowledge and cultural awareness, and improving cognitive skills such as memory.
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Listening to your favorite music may have more health benefits than you realize. Here’s how songs can reduce stress and help you heal.
It’s not until we forget our headphones that we realize just how much we rely on music to help us through the day. Our favorite music seems capable of pumping us up before an important moment, calming us down when we’re upset, and just about anything in between.
But is there actually a scientific explanation for this? As it turns out, yes!
Music has been widely studied and revered throughout human history for its ability to both entertain and heal. Countless experts have investigated how listening to music can potentially have therapeutic effects on a range of mental and physical health conditions, or just as a way to cope with everyday life.
Contemporary research suggests music has significant power to help reduce stress and anxiety, relieve pain, and improve focus among many more benefits.
How can listening to music reduce stress?
Stress — the feeling of emotional tension, overwhelm, or feeling unable to cope — affects us mentally and physically.
Stress has a biological impact that causes your body to release specific hormones and chemicals that activate your brain in certain ways. For example, when we are highly stressed, our heart rate and blood pressure can go up, and our adrenal gland begins producing cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.”
Short term, cortisol can help us find the focus and energy we need to deal with a difficult situation, but when the body is exposed to excess cortisol for a prolonged period of time, it causes perpetual, exhausting states of fight, flight, or freeze. Ongoing or chronic stress can lead to developing an anxiety disorder, depression, chronic pain, and more.
Across time and space, music has had tremendous success as a tool for stress relief. While some types of music such as classical and ambient have long been studied for their calming effects, listening to your personal favorite music of any genre also has benefits.
A 2020 overview of research into music and stress suggests that listening to music can:
- lower our heart rate and cortisol levels
- release endorphins and improve our sense of well-being
- distract us, reducing physical and emotional stress levels
- reduce stress-related symptoms, whether used in a clinical environment or in daily life
How does music affect your brain?
As of 2019, the average hearing person across the world listened to 18 hours of music a week! This number is likely to be even higher in 2021.
So what is music actually doing to us during those hours we listen to it?
Well, here’s a super simple breakdown:
- Music sounds move through our ears as vibrations.
- The inner ear translates these vibrations into electrical signals.
- Neurons transmit these signals to certain areas of the cerebral cortex in the brain.
- Dedicated regions of the brain detect the different elements of the signals (like the tone, pitch, rhythm).
- As the brain puts together all of this information so that you can sense the musical experience, it can influence our emotions and bodily systems, which is why scientists are so interested in studying it!
What does the research say?
Most investigations into music’s health effects center on its ability to calm us down and relieve stress. In recent years, this research has expanded in exciting and surprising new directions.
Some recent findings include the following:
- Reduced cortisol levels. A recent 2021 study showed that adults who listened to both personal and neutral selections of music, at home and in a laboratory environment, had significantly “reduced cortisol levels.” This was found regardless of the music type.
- Benefits in mental health treatments. An overview of 349 studies on music’s usefulness as a mental health treatment for conditions including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, found that 68.5% of music-based interventions had positive results.
- Reduced burnout. Music therapy also had significant benefit in preventing burnout in operating room staff. A 6-week study showed that after having access to 30-minute music listening sessions each day at work for a month, staff reported decreased stress levels and less emotional exhaustion.
- Helps you fall asleep. 62% of respondents to a 2018 survey reported they use music (from multiple genres) to help them fall asleep, mostly because it relaxed them, and distracted them from daily stressors. People who used music less were more likely to have lower quality sleep.
- Reduced depression. Music listening or music therapy reduced depression levels, according to a 2017 review, and was associated with increased confidence and motivation, especially in group settings.
- Reduced anxiety in children. A 2021 review of articles from 2009 to 2019 showed that music significantly reduced anxiety for children leading up to and during medical procedures.
- Helps people cope with the pandemic. A survey of over 5,600 people from 11 countries demonstrated that music has played a very important role during the COVID-19 pandemic in helping people cope during lockdown, and meet their well-being goals across culture, age, and gender lines.
- Improved quality of life with Alzheimer’s disease. Especially when tried in the form of personal playlists for relaxation, research showed that music interventions can have positive effects on the behavior and cognition of people with Alzheimer’s disease, improving quality of life.
Music as meditation
Meditation is an ancient tradition that is practiced in cultures all over the world and is an integral part of some religions and types of yoga. There are many types of mediation, and people use some types to help treat mental and physical health conditions.
Usually, meditation aims to focus, center, calm, or direct your attention. It can also help relax our bodies. So it can pair well with music for some people.
Often, music used for meditation has a slow tempo, which can reduce heart rate, and also lower anxiety and stress levels. Guided meditation involves music with a narrator or speaker that directs your energy flow and focus, or offers positive affirmations.
Interested in trying meditation? Check out these resources:
- The 6 Best Meditation Apps in 2021
- The 7 Best Online Meditation Options in 2021
- Which Type of Meditation is Right for Me?
Music therapy is different from just listening to music, although listening is a big part of it!
Music therapists work with a variety of patients of all ages. Like other forms of therapy, including art therapy, music therapists plan individualized sessions to help you meet your goals.
Music therapy can include goal-oriented music listening, playing and composing music, and songwriting, among other activities. These kinds of “purposeful” interactions with music can help you work through emotions or issues that are bothering you, encourage positive feelings, and even assist with speech or physical therapy.
A 2015 study compared the effects of music therapy with a therapist versus music medicine (where music was played without a therapist) among people with cancer. Even though all music listening showed positive results, 77% of patients preferred music therapy sessions to just listening to music on their own.
Music as a pain reliever
Research shows that music can help relieve both chronic pain and post-operative pain:
- Research shows that listening to “self-chosen, pleasant, familiar music” reduced pain in people with fibromyalgia.
- According to a small-scale 2017 study, listening to music in headphones while under local or general anesthesia can lower cortisol levels during surgery, and decrease post-op pain and stress.
How does it work? Scientists believe the effect may result from music actually shifting brain activity away from pain-related connectivity patterns, as well as creating positive emotions, and offering a distraction.
Music isn’t just limited to helping with physical pain. Stress causes emotional and psychological pain as well, which music can help alleviate.
Music as a focus aid
Maybe you’ve found yourself searching for “study playlists” on Spotify or YouTube. Well, it turns out there’s a reason why millions of other people stream these playlists too!
Listening to music has been shown to improve focus on certain tasks, especially if the task is more complex. Music may also help sharpen our brain’s ability to recall information and make connections.
In one recent experiment, participants were asked to press a button anytime the hand on a special clock started moving. The authors found that when people listened to their preferred background music while doing this “low-demanding sustained-attention task,” their minds wandered less, and they were more focused, compared to those without music.
Music to reduce anxiety
Anxiety, stress, and pain often hang out together. Music may be one way to help manage them and their troublemaking.
As some of the previously discussed research indicates, music can help reduce anxiety in both adults and children before and during medical procedures.
In one study of over 950 critically ill patients, 30 minutes of music therapy a day was consistently associated with lower rates of anxiety and stress. Music’s ability to decrease biological stress responses like heart rate and cortisol levels also helps tackle anxiety.
Music as a grounding tool
The sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of your central nervous system are involuntary or automatic, meaning they work without you having to think about them.
Doctors may refer to the parasympathetic side as “rest and digest,” since it takes care of things when the body is at rest, while sympathetic is “fight or flight,” in charge of the body in motion.
When we are thrown into a stressful situation, it’s hard to calm back down and stay grounded. Deep breathing is one way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to move back into “rest and digest.”
One study shows that some types of music may also be a way to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system quicker following a period of increased heart rate, like after exercising.
Are some types of music better for reducing stress?
Certain genres of lyric-less music, like classical and ambient, are historically the subject of most research studies into music and stress. While there’s evidence that they can reduce stress and anxiety, that doesn’t mean they’re “better” than other genres of music.
For many of the studies mentioned in this article, music listening involved multiple genres or songs chosen by both the participants and the researchers. In fact, the American Music Therapy Association states that “All styles of music can be useful in effecting change in a client or patient’s life.”
We also use different kinds of music for different purposes. Since we all have special relationships with our favorite songs and genres, we can use those to invoke certain emotions and feelings unique to that relationship. For example:
- Classical music is associated with a soothing, calming effect.
- Rap music can be inspiring and motivating when in a low mood or dealing with difficult life circumstances.
- Heavy metal music can “enhance identity development” and help you become better-adjusted.
Musicians, researchers, and music therapists have actually claimed to create “the most relaxing” song ever, called “Weightless.” But you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Listening to your favorite music has more benefits than you realize. It’s also safe, cost-effective, and widely available.
Music is certainly not a magical cure, nor is it a substitute for therapy, medication, surgery, or any other medical treatments. But music can be an important element of your well-being and self-care on a daily basis, as well as a helpful partner in dealing with more acute health conditions.
Music listening, therapy, and interventions have many benefits like:
- lowered stress and anxiety
- better mood
- reduced pain
- improved sleep
- sharpened focus or memory
- relaxing your body and helping with meditation
- assistance with speech or physical therapy
- fostering community and a sense of togetherness
Research into music’s healing and stress-relieving properties is ongoing and sometimes with mixed results. But ultimately, perhaps the most important takeaway is: keep listening!