Baby listening to man playing the guitar

Music Therapy

Music Therapy​

Hans Christian Anderson once said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Music not only tells a story of its own, but in many ways, writes the story of our lives. It brings back memories, both happy and sad. It connects us with others, insomuch as it commonizes the human experience. Music has long been known for its therapeutic benefits.

What is Music Therapy?​

According to Merriam Webster’s Medical Dictionary, Music Therapy is “therapy based on engagement in musical activities: the therapeutic use of music (as to reduce anxiety, improve cognitive functioning, promote physical rehabilitation, or enhance interpersonal communication) that typically involves listening to music, singing, playing musical instruments, or composing music.

Further, The American Music Therapy Association says it 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 program.” Research supports Music Therapy’s effectiveness in promoting wellness, stress-management, movement, increasing self-motivation for improvement; it also provides emotional support for families, and a general outlet for feelings that may be difficult to express.

What is a Music Therapist?​

Music Therapists are established health professionals who use music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. Music Therapists help to identify the patient’s needs and then develop treatment plans that include listening to, singing, or moving to music. Via these avenues, the participant may find ways to communicate or express him- or herself when words are not possible. Music therapists typically choose categories and styles of music that will best fit the needs and goals of the participant, and therapy may be conducted in groups or individually. Credentialed Music Therapists work with a variety of people: premature infants to improve sleep patterns, children with autism to improve communication abilities, hospital patients to decrease pain, and Parkinson’s patients to improve motor function, to name a few.

What Are the Two Music Therapy​ Techniques?

There are two basic types of music therapy techniques: active and receptive. When we create music, by singing, playing a musical instrument, or composing, we are using active techniques. When we listen and react to music, such as through analysis of the lyrics or instrumentals, or through dance, we are employing receptive techniques. Quite frequently, forms of each type of technique are utilized together in music therapy and are helpful in facilitating conversation, when possible, about feelings and goals.

How is Music Therapy​ Applied?

A therapist might play music for autistic children with limited social skills and have them imagine what the composer or performer was feeling when s/he created the piece. This practice would be designed to help the children develop or strengthen their empathic skills. Another group setting example is a “drumming circle” used to “induce relaxation, provide an outlet for feelings, and foster social connectedness among members of a group.” Members each have a hand drum and the therapist leads them in activities. Individuals within the group may be asked to express how they feel by playing something on their drum, or the group might be asked to work in unison to build cohesiveness. Music Therapists are willing to try whatever musical methods are necessary to help patients reach their goals, whether that is playing music from a radio, singing with patients, or teaching them how to play an instrument.

What Type of Benefits Can Music Therapy​ Provide?

Music therapy may alleviate symptoms of some mental health concerns such as: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and insomnia. GoodTherapy.org®, an organization that helps connect people with therapists, states, “Music therapy can both assess and enhance cognitive, social, emotional, and motor functioning, and studies have shown positive results among individuals who have intellectual or physical difficulties, brain injuries, or Alzheimer's. This type of therapy has also been used in the treatment of physical ailments such as cancer and hypertension.”​

How Can Music Therapy​ Help Children?

Music therapy has been shown to help children in a plethora of ways: it stimulates the senses, helps them deal with crisis and trauma, may be motivating or calming, helps manage pain and stressful situations, encourages socialization, and promotes communication and motor development. The brain processes music in both hemispheres; consequently, music can stimulate cognitive functioning and may be used for remediation of some speech and language skills. Multiple research studies have shown music therapy is beneficial for children (and adults) with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Among other benefits, music therapy has been linked to improvement with communication, auditory processing, and motor skills.

Music Therapy​ for Stroke and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Music is often a major player in bringing rehabilitative care to people with brain injuries. The Brain Injury Society website notes, “Music therapy was first recognized as an aid to soldiers who attained brain injuries after returning from World War II.” Following a stroke, singing words or phrases set to melody can enhance speech formation and fluency. Beverly Merz, Executive Editor of Harvard Women's Health Watch states, “Music therapy can help people who are recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates in the right side of the brain, people can work around the injury to the left side of their brain by first singing their thoughts and then gradually dropping the melody.” This technique was recently and poignantly represented by Former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who, two years after a gunshot to her brain left her unable to speak, was able to testify in front of a Congressional committee. Music Therapy also helps battle symptoms of depression that often follow TBI; upbeat music naturally lifts the patient’s spirits, redirecting them to happier thoughts.

Though Music Therapy generally has positive outcomes with no negative side-effects, it is not recommended as a stand-alone treatment for serious medical and psychiatric concerns. Be sure to follow your doctor’s advice when adding Music Therapy to your medical regimen, which may include medication, physical therapy, or psychotherapy. With the appropriate guidance from a certified Music Therapist, you or your loved could be singing and dancing once again!

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