Therapist

Using music therapy to heal

What is music therapy?

Sound healing therapy uses aspects of music to improve physical and emotional health and well-being. The person being treated partakes in the experience with a trained practitioner. Music therapy may involve:

  • listening to music
  • singing along to music
  • moving to the beat of the music
  • meditating
  • playing an instrument

Healing with sound is believed to date back to ancient Greece, when music was used in an attempt to cure mental disorders. Throughout history, music has been used to boost morale in military troops, help people work faster and more productively, and even ward off evil spirits by chanting.

More recently, research has linked music to a number of health benefits, from boosting immune function and lowering stress levels to improving the health of premature babies.

What music therapy treats

Music therapy is used to treat symptoms of a number of conditions, including:

  • anxiety disorders
  • depression
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • dementia
  • autism spectrum disorder and learning difficulties
  • behavioral and psychiatric disorders
  • cancer

Some of the supposed benefits of music therapy include:

  • lowers stress
  • decreases mood swings
  • lowers blood pressure
  • lowers cholesterol levels
  • teaches pain management
  • lowers risk for coronary artery disease and stroke
  • improves sleep

How it works

Music therapy uses different aspects of sound to improve your emotional and physical well-being. How it works depends on the method being used. Most music therapy sessions are experienced one-on-one with a specially trained practitioner.

A session may involve sitting or lying down while listening to music or sounds from a speaker or instruments, or having vibrations applied using a special tool, such as a tuning fork. Depending on the method, you may be encouraged to participate by singing, moving, or even using a musical instrument, or you may need to remain still and quiet to let the sounds take effect.

Healing instruments

Along with voice, the following are some of the different instruments used in music therapy:

  • singing bowls
  • tuning forks
  • pan flute
  • harp
  • drums

Some methods use a variety of instruments in one session, which can include a guitar, piano, or other instrument.

The takeaway

Though evidence may be limited on some methods, music therapy has been found to be effective for stress reduction and relaxation and has been shown to offer many health benefits.

There is little risk to listening to music. Find the sounds that work for you.

Overview

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is the clinical use of music to accomplish individualized goals such as reducing stress, improving mood and self-expression. It is an evidence-based therapy well-established in the health community. Music therapy experiences may include listening, singing, playing instruments, or composing music. Musical skills or talents are not required to participate.

Music therapy may help you psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually, cognitively and socially. A short list of benefits includes:

  • Lowering blood pressure.
  • Improving memory.
  • Enhanced communication and social skills through experiencing music with others.
  • Self-reflection. Observing your thoughts and emotions.
  • Reducing muscle tension.
  • Self-regulation. Developing healthy coping skills to manage your thoughts and emotions.
  • Increasing motivation.
  • Managing pain.
  • Increasing joy.

Formal music therapy was defined and first used by the United States War Department in 1945. It helped military service members recovering in Army hospitals with occupational therapy, education, recreation and physical reconditioning.

Who do music therapists work with?

People of all backgrounds, ages and cultures can respond to music, and to music therapy. Notable groups music therapists have helped include:

  • Military service members and veterans. Music therapy helps you cope with trauma.
  • People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Individuals on the spectrum learn best when there is familiarity, structure, predictability and consistency.
  • Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Music therapy may help with memory and stimulate your mind because of predictability, familiarity and feelings of security.
  • People in correctional settings. If you’re incarcerated, in a mental health facility, half-way house or group home, music therapy may help with problem-solving, communication skills, relaxation and decreasing impulsivity.
  • Victims of trauma and crisis. If you’ve experienced trauma and crisis, you might have anxiety, stress and pain. Music therapy can help you with decreasing those three experiences, improving your mood, feeling confident and in control and providing a non-verbal outlet for emotions.
  • Those who are physically ill. The list includes, but is not limited to people with chronic pain, diabetes, cardiac conditions, cancer, headaches, recent surgery and people in rehab.
  • Individuals with mental health disorders. If you’re dealing with a mental health disorder, music therapy can help you with communication and expression, help you explore your thoughts and feelings, improve your mood and concentration and develop coping skills.
  • People with chronic pain. Music therapy can help decrease your pain, anxiety, fatigue and depression.
  • Substance abusers. Music therapy may help if you have a substance abuse disorder. Research has shown that it can increase motivation and self-esteem, reduce muscle tension, decrease anxiety, improve self-awareness and strengthen coping skills.

Where does music therapy take place?

The most common settings are hospitals, schools, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, mental health centers and residences for individuals with developmental disabilities. Music therapists also go to juvenile detention facilities, schools and private practices.

Is music therapy outpatient or inpatient?

Whether the music therapy is delivered outpatient or inpatient depends on the individual program. You may be able to come in for sessions during the day (just like a counseling appointment), or a music therapist may come to you while you’re admitted into the hospital or at school. Sometimes music therapy is held in groups.

Do music therapists work with children and adolescents?

Yes. Music therapy may help with the following:

  • Behavior disorders.
  • Mood and anxiety disorders.
  • Attention deficit/Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
  • Trauma.
  • Substance abuse disorders.

“Focus on the sound of the instrument,” Andrew Rossetti, a licensed music therapist and researcher said as he strummed hypnotic chords on a Spanish-style classical guitar. “Close your eyes. Think of a place where you feel safe and comfortable.”

Music therapy was the last thing that Julia Justo, a graphic artist who immigrated to New York from Argentina, expected when she went to Mount Sinai Beth Israel Union Square Clinic for treatment for cancer in 2016. But it quickly calmed her fears about the radiation therapy she needed to go through, which was causing her severe anxiety.

“I felt the difference right away, I was much more relaxed,” she said.

Ms. Justo, who has been free of cancer for over four years, continued to visit the hospital every week before the onset of the pandemic to work with Mr. Rossetti, whose gentle guitar riffs and visualization exercises helped her deal with ongoing challenges, like getting a good night’s sleep. Nowadays they keep in touch mostly by email.

The healing power of music — lauded by philosophers from Aristotle and Pythagoras to Pete Seeger — is now being validated by medical research. It is used in targeted treatments for asthma, autism, depression and more, including brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and stroke.

Madison, Wis. — It’s been called many things – the universal language, a great healer, even a reflection of the divine. While there’s little doubt about the power of music, research now shows us just how powerful it can be.

“Across the history of time, music has been used in all cultures for healing and medicine,” said health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD. “Every culture has found the importance of creating and listening to music. Even Hippocrates believed music was deeply intertwined with the medical arts.”

Scientific evidence suggests that music can have a profound effect on individuals – from helping improve the recovery of motor and cognitive function in stroke patients, reducing symptoms of depression in patients suffering from dementia, even helping patients undergoing surgery to experience less pain and heal faster. And, of course, it can be therapeutic.

“Music therapy is an established form of therapy to help individuals address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs,” said Mirgain. “Music helps reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and cortisol in the body. It eases anxiety and can help improve mood.”

Music is often in the background just about anywhere we go – whether at a restaurant or the store. But Mirgain offers some tips to help use music intentionally to relax, ease stress and even boost moods:

Be aware of the sound environment

Some restaurants use music as a way of subtly encouraging people to eat faster so there is greater turnover. If you’re looking for a location to have a meeting, or even a personal discussion that could be stressful, keep in mind that noisy environments featuring lively music can actually increase stress and tension.

Use it to boost your energy

On the other hand, when you need energy levels to be up – like when exercising, cleaning or even giving a presentation – upbeat music can give you the lift you need. Consider using music when you’re getting ready in the morning as a way to get your day off on the right beat.

Improve sleep

Listening to classical or relaxing music an hour before bedtime can help create a sense of relaxation and lead to improved sleep.

Calm road rage

Listening to music you enjoy can help you feel less frustrated with traffic and could even make you a safer driver.

Improve your mental game

Playing an instrument can actually help your brain function better. Faster reaction times, better long-term memory, even improved alertness are just a few of the ways playing music can help. Studies have also shown that children who learn to play music do better at math and have improved language skills.

Reduce medical anxiety

Feeling stressed about an upcoming medical procedure? Consider using music to calm those jitters. Put your ear buds in and listening to your favorite tunes while sitting in the waiting room can ease anticipatory anxiety before a medical procedure, such as a dental procedure, MRI or injection. Ask your health care provider if music is available to be played in the room during certain procedures, like a colonoscopy, mammogram or even a cavity filling. Using music in these situations distracts your mind, provides a positive experience and can improve your medical outcome.

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