The Benefits of Music Therapy

Woman listening to music

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If you like music, you probably already know it can affect your mood. Maybe you put on your favorite song to pump yourself up for an important meeting or listen to soothing music when you’re relaxing at home before bed.  

Research has demonstrated the benefits of music therapy for people with depression and anxiety. Music therapy is often used to promote mental and emotional health, but it may also improve the quality of life for people with physical health problems.  

What Is Music Therapy? 

A music therapy session may incorporate different elements, such as making music, writing songs, or listening to music. Music therapists are trained in more than music; their education often covers a wide range of clinical skills, including communication, cognitive neuroscience, psychological disorders, as well as chronic illness and pain management.  

To practice music therapy, an individual must take and pass an exam to become board certified. Credentialed professionals are listed on the National Music Therapy Registry.  

When you begin working with a music therapist, you will start by identifying what your goals are. For example, if you have depression and feel "down and out" most days, you may hope to use music to naturally lift your mood. You may also want to try applying music therapy to other symptoms of depression like anxiety, insomnia, or trouble focusing.  

After discussing your needs, a music therapist's goals for your treatment might include: 

  • Improving your mood  
  • Enhancing your quality of life 
  • Strengthening your coping skills 
  • Encouraging emotional expression 
  • Relieving stress and symptoms of anxiety 

What Happens During a Session

Depending on your goals, a typical music therapy session lasts between 30 minutes to one hour. Much like you would plan sessions with a psychotherapist, you may choose to have a set schedule for music therapy—say, once a week. Or, you may choose to work with a music therapist on a more casual “as-needed” basis.  

Music therapy is often one-on-one, but you may also choose to participate in group sessions if they are available. Sessions with a music therapist take place wherever they practice, which might be a private office, clinic, or community health center. Wherever it happens to be, the room you work in together will be a calm environment with no outside distractions.  

Each music therapist will have their own routine for sessions. For example, some therapists like to start and end sessions the same way each time; perhaps with a particular song. Therapists can use many different styles and techniques depending on their education, interests, and strengths.  

For instance, some types of music therapy use a lot of movement. If you have physical pain or illness, it’s important to ask your music therapist about the techniques they use to make sure they will be a good fit for you.  

During a music therapy session, you may listen to different genres of music, play a musical instrument, or even compose your own songs. You may be asked to tune in to your emotions as you perform these tasks or allow your feelings to direct your actions. For example, if you are angry you might play or sing loud, fast, and dissonant chords.  

In addition to using music to express your feelings without words, you may also explore ways to change how you feel with music. If you express anger or stress, your music therapist might respond by having you listen to or create music with slow, soft, soothing tones.  

You may notice that switching to calm music makes you feel calm—and there’s a scientific explanation. Several studies have shown that heart rate and blood pressure readings respond to changes in volume and tempo. Some research has suggested that listening to music also releases endorphins, which may help people manage pain.  

Between sessions, your music therapist may give you shorter exercises to do at home. They may recommend using apps on your smartphone to play music, generate sounds, and track your progress.  

Music Therapy vs. Sound Therapy 

Music and sound therapy have several subtle but important differences. Each type has its own goals, protocols, tools, and settings. Music therapy is also a relatively new discipline compared to the concept of sound healing, which is based on ancient Tibetan cultural practices.  

Rather than making or listening to music to address symptoms like stress and pain, sound therapy is more focused on using tools to achieve specific sound frequencies. Drums, flutes, chimes, bells, tuning forks, and natural sounds such as running water are used to produce tones, vibrations, and pitches that reach a specific frequency.

The two types of therapy have some similarities and people may benefit from both, but there is less research on the effectiveness of sound healing compared to traditional music therapy. 

It's also important to note that those who use sound healing don’t necessarily have the same education, training, and credentialing as music therapists. The training and certifications that exist for sound therapy are not as standardized as those for music therapists.  

Another difference is where you’re most likely to encounter each type. While sound healing is often a component of complementary or alternative medicine, a music therapist is more likely to work in a hospital, substance abuse treatment center, or have a private practice. 

Who Can Use Music Therapy? 

If you don’t consider yourself musical, that’s OK. You don't need any musical ability or previous experience to benefit from music therapy. 

Music therapy can be highly personalized, making it suitable for people of any age. Even very young children can benefit from music therapy. In fact, you'd likely recognize the foundations and techniques in most preschool classrooms.  

Children and young adults who have developmental and/or learning disabilities can use music therapy to strengthen motor skills and learn to communicate more effectively.  

Adults may find music therapy useful for everything from simple stress management to treating mental and physical illness.  

Older adults may have much to gain from music therapy in a group setting where it can fulfill social needs as well as promote physical and mental well-being.  

Research has also shown that music can have a powerful effect on people with dementia and other memory-related disorders.   

What Research Says 

The uses and benefits of music therapy have been researched for decades. Key findings from clinical studies have shown that music therapy may be helpful for people with depression and anxiety, sleep disorders, and even cancer. 

Depression 

A Cochrane systemic review published in 2017 found that studies have shown music therapy can be an effective component of depression treatment. According to the research cited, the use of music therapy was most beneficial to people with depression when it was combined with the usual treatments (such as antidepressants and psychotherapy).  

A small study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2015 indicated that when used in combination with other forms of treatment, music therapy may help reduce obsessive thoughts, depression, and anxiety in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In 2016, researchers conducted a feasibility study that explored how music therapy could be combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat depression. While additional research is needed, the initial results were promising.

The self-help group concept, which researchers named Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-Based Music Therapy (CBT-Music), may prove to be an effective option for treating mild-to-moderate depression symptoms.

Insomnia 

Many people find that music, or even white noise, helps them fall asleep. Research has shown that music therapy may be helpful for people with sleep disorders or insomnia as a symptom of depression.  

Compared to pharmaceutical and other commonly prescribed treatments for sleep disorders, music is less invasive, more affordable, and something a person can do on their own to self-manage.  

Specific techniques like music-assisted relaxation therapy have been shown to benefit people with sleep difficulties by creating a relaxing “pre-sleep” state. It can also be used in a non-home setting: studies have shown that music can be a nonpharmacological treatment for insomnia in hospitalized patients.  

Pain Management

Music has been explored as a potential strategy for acute and chronic pain management in all age groups. Research has shown that listening to music when healing from surgery or an injury, for example, may help both kids and adults cope with physical pain.

A 2015 study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that when paired with standard post-operative hospital care, music therapy was an effective way to lower pain levels, anxiety, heart rate, and blood pressure readings in patients who were recovering from thoracic surgery.

Non-pharmacological distraction techniques are often preferred methods of treating pain in children. Many studies have indicated that music therapy can be a valuable tool within this arsenal of treatments. In fact, some research has even shown music may affect children's behavior even if they aren't consciously aware of it.

A Scandinavian study published in 2017 found that children and teens who listened to music with headphones during minor surgical procedures showed fewer post-surgical maladaptive behaviors (which are scored using a special questionnaire) for up to a week after surgery.

Music has long been a popular pain management strategy during labor and childbirth. A 2019 review of literature conducted by Sydney Mohr at Lesley University found that even though the research is limited, music therapy assisted childbirth appears to be a positive, accessible, non-pharmacological option for pain management with benefits for laboring mothers and newborns.

Newborns might also benefit from music therapy, especially during the common tests performed after birth. One study found that when music was added to standard neonatal pain management during heel prick blood tests, the premature infants' facial expressions and vitals (taken to be indicators of pain) were noticeably different.

The premature babies who were exposed to music had lower heart rates and different facial expressions (believed to be indicative of pain). These changes were monitored during the test as well as for five minutes after it was complete. The researchers concluded that music could be a valuable addition to pain management in neonatal intensive care units, similar to how it can be used with older children and adults.

On an emotional pain level, music therapy can be part of a long-term plan for managing chronic pain. Music's strong connection to memory processing means it can also help people recapture and focus on positive memories from when they did not have distressing symptoms.  

Cancer 

Coping with a cancer diagnosis as well as going through treatment is as much an emotional experience as a physical one. In the same way cancer patients often need more than one type of treatment to address their complex medical needs, they also need different sources of support to take care of their emotional and spiritual wellbeing.  

Music therapy has been shown to help reduce anxiety in cancer patients starting radiation treatments and may help them cope with the side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea.  

The emotional benefits of music therapy experienced by people with depression often apply to people with cancer as well, many of whom may experience symptoms of depression at some point after receiving a diagnosis, while they are undergoing treatment, or even once they are in remission.  

Other Conditions

Researchers are also exploring the potential of music therapy to help people of all ages with physical and mental health conditions, including:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Speech disorders
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Substance use disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Developmental delays and learning disabilities
  • Stroke, brain injury, and neurological disorders

Limitations 

On its own, music therapy has not been shown to constitute adequate treatment for medical conditions, including mental health disorders. However, when combined with medication, psychotherapy, and other interventions, it can be a valuable component of a treatment plan. 

If you’d like to explore music therapy, talk to your doctor or therapist. They can connect you with practitioners in your community. You'll also want to check your health insurance benefits. Music therapy sessions may be covered or reimbursable under your plan, but you may need a referral from your doctor.  

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