It’s believed that music has been used since practically the beginning of time to help humans deal with difficult feelings and better connect to one another. Because of its strong and immediate influence over our emotions, coupled with its ability to naturally increase neurochemicals — including “feel good” endorphins — music is now being added to many rehabilitation programs across the world.
Music therapy (MT), also commonly referred to as active music therapy or passive music therapy in many studies, has shown promise for improving both motor control and emotional functions in patients with a wide range of diseases or disabilities. From cases of schizophrenia to Parkinson’s disease, musical interventions seem to help naturally decrease symptoms like anxiety or depression, help ignite creativity, improve communications between patients and their caregivers, and much more.
Experts in music therapy claim that sessions can help “achieve global improvement in personal well-being” without the reliance on mind-altering drugs. We can expect more research to keep emerging regarding the benefits of MT as it continues to be added to a variety of settings — including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, therapists offices, universities, special needs programs and hospices.
What Is Music Therapy?
Music therapy is based on the improvisation of music by a therapist and patient, sometimes done in a one-on-one setting but other times conducted in groups. There are two main branches of MT: active and passive. Active MT involves interaction between therapist and the patient much more than passive MT, in which the patient is usually as rest but listening to the therapist.
With passive therapy, the therapist plays calming music and invites the patient to visualize peaceful images and reflect on their inner dialogue, feelings and sensations. In most active music therapy sessions, the therapist and patients both work together using instruments as well as their voices and sometimes bodies (such as to dance or stretch).
The use of instruments in MT is structured to involve as many sensory organs as possible — incorporating touch, sight and sound. In both types of MT, rhythmic and melodic components of music are manipulated so that they work as stimuli to help uncover and work-through certain emotions, such as sadness, grief, frustration, loneliness, joy, gratitude, etc.
How Music Affects the Brain & Body:
How does music therapy work to relieve stress, lower depression and counteract other negative mind states exactly? Research suggests that some of the key ways that MT can help you feel better or even lower the need for use of prescription drugs, such as tranquilizing medications or hypnotics commonly prescribed for cognitive loss or anxiety, include increasing:
- self-awareness and expression
- stimulation of speech
- motor integration
- a sense of belonging
- and enhanced communication and relationships with others, both highly tied to happiness
According to an article published in Spirituality and Health, while music has been used for thousands of years due to its healing abilities, strong scientific support for using music as a professional healing therapy really took off in the early 2000s.
In 2004, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a report based on 600 studies showing that use of manipulated sound and light can have a dramatic effect on how fast and how well patients recover. Since this time, more and more hospitals and other settings, such as the Good Samaritan Medical Center in Colorado, have been incorporating music as part of an effort to create new holistic healing environments, proving to be valuable into the treatment of trauma, common illnesses, boredom or restlessness among patients, burn-out or adrenal fatigue among caregivers and more.
6 Health Benefits of Music Therapy
1. Reduces Anxiety & Physical Effects of Stress
An article published in the Southern Medical Journal states that “Although there are wide variations in individual preferences, music appears to exert direct physiologic effects through the autonomic nervous system.” (1) Music has the ability to cause immediate motor and emotional responses, especially when combining movement and stimulation of different sensory pathways.
When instrument playing is involved, both auditory and tactile stimulation help produce a state of mental relaxation. Music is now used as a form of natural therapy for many different diseases, even showing benefits for those who are severely physically or cognitively impaired — such as handicapped children, geriatric adults suffering from late-stage chronic illnesses, or those with severe social anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder.
Not surprisingly, studies have found that MT seems to have the most benefits when combined with other interdisciplinary practices, such as physical exercise, occupational and speech therapy, psychological counseling, improved nutrition and social support.
2. Improves Healing
One of the ways that MT is being used in hospital settings is improving healing by reducing anxiety prior to procedures or tests. Studies have found that MT lowers anxiety in patients undergoing cardiac procedures and seems to relax patients after surgery or during follow-up invasive diagnostic procedures.
It’s suggested that music can positively modify release of stress hormones that are beneficial for neurological, immune, respiratory and cardiac functions involved in healing. (2)
3. Can Help Manage Parkinson’s & Alzheimer’s Disease
Both anecdotal evidence and clinical studies show that MT improves both cognitive functions and quality of life in patients suffering from cognitive impairments, including Parkinson’s (PD) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). According to a report printed in the World Journal of Psychiatry, “Mood disorder and depressive syndromes represent a common comorbid condition in neurological disorders with a prevalence rate that ranges between 20–5o percent of patients with stroke, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. (3)
It’s been found that the act of music-making provides a form of uplifting therapy for these patients that helps them cope with progressive worsening of symptoms, as well as offering stimulation to their senses and an element social support when sessions are conducted in groups. (4)
In 2000, the American Psychosomatic Society published research regarding the positive effects of music therapy in helping to improve a number of symptoms in those with PD by managing things like sensory loss, disability or depression. According to the researchers, “Music acts as a specific stimulus to obtain motor and emotional responses by combining movement and stimulation of different sensory pathways.” The randomized, controlled, single-blinded study included 32 patients with Parkinson’s that were split into either the MT group or control. (5)
The study lasted three months and consisted of weekly sessions of music therapy combined with physical therapy (PT). During music therapy sessions, treatment consisted of group choral singing, voice exercises, rhythmic and free body movements, and active music involving collective invention. Physical therapy was also incorporated to include stretching exercises, specific motor tasks, and strategies to improve balance and gait.
After three months — using the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale, emotional functions with the Happiness Measure, and quality of life using the Parkinson’s Disease Quality of Life Questionnaire — results showed that MT offered significant overall benefits compared to the control. Positive effects were measured for bradykinesia, motor improvement, control of emotional functions, improvements in activities of daily living, and improved overall quality of life. (6)
4. Reduces Depression & Other Symptoms in the Elderly
MT is now highly recommended in geriatric care settings due to how is helps improve social, psychological, intellectual and cognitive performance of older adults. Depression, feelings of isolation, boredom, anxiety over procedures and fatigue are common complaints among geriatric patients. Both active and passive MT seem to help with mood improvement, providing a sense of comfort and relaxation and even modifying caregiver behavior. (7)
Sessions have shown positive effects when conducted before anxiety-provoking procedures or for patients staying in intensive care units. For worried caregivers, music is considered a “cost-effective and enjoyable strategy to improve empathy, compassion and relationship-centered care.”
5. Helps Reduce Symptoms of Psychological Disorders, Including Schizophrenia
Findings from a very recent 2017 study conducted in South Korea indicate that a 12-week program of group music therapy served as an effective intervention for improving psychiatric symptoms and interpersonal relationships in patients with mental illness like schizophrenia. (8)
The music program used in the study, which was published in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, was modeled after Nanta, a popular and long-running type of non-verbal comedy show in South Korea that incorporates traditional samul nori rhythms. (9) The unifying elements throughout Nanta music are performed with improvised instruments, such as cutting boards, water canisters and kitchen knives, and are almost totally non-verbal. The intervention was conducted in 12 sessions over 12 weeks, taking 90 minutes per session.
6. Improves Self-Expression & Communication
One of the longest-standing uses of music interventions is helping to treat those who are physically or mentally handicapped living in rehabilitation centers who have difficulty with self-expression. For those with physical handicaps, receptive music therapy is used to help patients have “flow experiences” when listening to stimulating music and to learn how to better respond through verbal and non-verbal feedback based on changing music stimuli. (10)
In children with developmental delays — such as autism or delayed speech development, who are more at risk of acquiring other cognitive, social-emotional, and school-related problems— music therapy helps facilitate speech development quickly (within about 8 weeks), teaches turn-taking, and improves imitation or vocalization. (11)
How to Find a Reputable Music Therapist
How does someone earn a music therapy degree, and where do music therapists usually wind up becoming employed?
The American Music Therapy Association states on their website that Music Therapy is “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 degree program.”
Meeting with a certified music therapist is very different then simply listening to music on your own. Professional sessions will allow you to experience personalized therapy aiming to achieve emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities and cognitive skills through musical responses. Things that your musical therapist might employ during sessions include:
- receptive music listening
- creative song writing
- lyric discussion
- music with guided imagery
- singing, playing, dancing and performance
- learning through music
To find a therapist qualified to practice music therapy, look for someone who has completed an approved bachelor degree, masters program or recognized equivalencies. Most therapists have a masters degree in music therapy and have completed an internship before becoming eligible to sit for the national examination offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.
To verify certification credentials of an individual, you can visit here. This allows you to locate and check Music therapists who have successfully completed the independently administered examination to hold the credential “Music Therapist, Board Certified (MT-BC).” Other accreditations may include RMT (Registered Music Therapist), CMT (Certified Music Therapist) and ACMT (Advanced Certified Music Therapist).
Precautions Regarding the Use of Music Therapy
Music therapy is comparable to other treatments like psychotherapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy in that individual responses and improvements vary. Treatments can sometimes be costly and are not always reimbursable through insurance, although this seems to be changing. The American Music Therapy Association now estimates that approximately 20 percent of music therapists receive third party insurance reimbursement for the services they provide.
To help with coverage, speak to your insurance provider about your illness, symptoms, injury and need for intervention. If you have questions regarding how you’re responding to MT sessions, ask your regular healthcare provider for advice or consider speaking with someone such as a cognitive behavioral therapist in addition to music therapist.
Final Thoughts on Music Therapy
- Music therapy is a professional intervention practice that helps patients express and work through difficult emotions as guided by a therapist using rhythm, movement, instruments and senses like sound, touch, visualization and more.
- Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many areas such as: physical rehabilitation, facilitating movement, reducing anxiety or depression improving healing, increasing attention or motivation, and helping with social communication.
- For research insights, tips and to find a qualified music therapist to work with, patients can visit the website of the American Music Therapy Association.