Music Therapy:

What is music therapy and is it a practical approach to healing?


What is music therapy? It seems like a simple enough question but the answer is complex.  Music therapy can be a means of healing or increasing self expression.  Music therapy can be a part of treatment to help manage depression, anxiety, anger, or grief.  Music therapy can lessen chronic pain and aid pain relief and relaxation in medical procedures. Music therapy is also a profession that has come into its own in the last half century. Music therapy is effective because it is a nonverbal form of communication that offers immediate reinforcement which can help motivate the learning of non-musical skills. The nature of music to motivate comes from the fact that nearly everyone responds favorably to some kind of music. 

Perhaps instead of asking “What is music therapy?” we should ask, when it comes to music, “What isn’t music therapy?” 

Music therapy is not new age hype. It was written about very early as a healing influence which could positively affect health and behavior.  This goes back to the writings of Aristotle and Plato. After World War I and II the playing of music in veterans’ hospitals was found to be so helpful that research, study and training led to music therapy programs being started in the 1940’s. 

Not just any use of music is considered music therapy. The provider of therapy and the goals must be defined.  As a profession, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), which represents over 5000 music therapists, has defined music therapy as “The prescribed use of music by a qualified person to effect positive changes in the psychological, physical, cognitive, or social functioning of individuals with health or educational problems.” Typically, becoming a music therapist involves four years of course work and a six-month internship in an approved facility before receiving a Bachelor of Music Therapy degree.  

How do music therapists use music? The AMTA states that “Music therapists assess emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities, and cognitive skills through musical responses; design music sessions for individuals and groups based on client needs using music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance, and learning through music; participate in interdisciplinary treatment planning, on-going evaluation, and follow up.” 

Who benefits from music therapy?

Clients of any age from children to the elderly can benefit from music therapy. Healthy individuals can use music therapy techniques for stress reduction through active music making or through learning relaxation to music techniques. Those with mental health needs, developmental disabilities, addictive problems, brain injuries, chronic pain or even the pain of childbirth labor can also benefit.


What are some typical uses of music therapy?


Music therapy and group therapy.

Music therapy can be used to augment group therapy in adult or adolescent groups that focus on emotional awareness and appropriate managing and expressing of emotion. Music can bring up emotions easily and through the techniques of lyric discussion, using drums to accent emotion, song writing, or choosing songs to match a mood, the emotions can be experienced and expressed in a supportive setting.      

Music therapy and autism  

The non-verbal and non-threatening nature of music makes it useful in reaching autistic children. This is especially true of many autistic children that seem to have a special fascination, and at times an unusual sensitivity to music. Pairing music with speech can help increase word usage and more natural inflections in autistic children. Pairing music with games and movement can help to increase socialization and decrease the isolation of autistic individuals.

Music therapy and chronic pain treatment

Music therapy can help manage chronic pain both by passive listening and by active participation. One study reported in the Journal of Advanced Nursing as done by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation used passive music listening with clients in a chronic pain program. They found that daily listening to music for an hour a day on headsets brought about a 21% reduction in pain levels as well as a 25% drop in depression linked to pain. This author ran an active sing-along music therapy group on a chronic pain treatment unit every three weeks for 20 years, and would often hear the comment from a client, “I completely forgot about my pain for the whole hour!”

Music therapy with Alzheimer’s Disease clients and brain injury clients

Music accesses a different part of the brain than speech, and memories can be triggered by music. This makes music an aid to improving recall by pairing music with other stimuli to enhance recall. Music is used with elderly persons to improve their level of physical, mental, and social/emotional functioning.        

Music therapy and anger management.

Music therapy can help clients identify the emotions that underlie anger and increase the client’s awareness of these feelings and situations that can trigger them. If a situation or emotion is presented in a song the healthy options for expressing that feeling can be discussed and conflict resolution and problem solving can be practiced in a positive manner.  Drumming is also used by music therapists to help clients appropriately vent anger and other emotions. Another use of drumming can be a non-verbal conversation on drums where the ability to listen to the other person’s drumming is needed to “converse” on the drums.

Music therapy and sound therapy

Sound therapy encompasses many sources and uses of sound, from quartz bowls to large chimes to toning, the use of self-generated sound to calm and induce meditative states. Some of these sound techniques are used by music therapists in the treatment of clients. Other sound therapy techniques, both new and old in origin, will need further study and research to become approved for mainstream use. 

Music therapy as an alternate therapy

Music therapy can be used as an alternate or complimentary therapy in hospitals to alleviate pain in conjunction with anesthesia or pain medication, to elevate moods to counteract depression, and to promote movement for physical rehabilitation.

As you can see, music therapy can have positive effects with a large range of clients, and as a profession that is growing in numbers and uses; it can be expected to become a beneficial part of more and more lives.


For more information about music therapy and how it can help you, get a copy of the book Still a Minstrel.



"Readers will enjoy the struggles of a garage band to the bandstand with local and world-renowned legends. Suess guides us through those years as the music changed us and we reflected those changes in our music"

- Doug Spartz, Founder,
Minnesota Rock/Country Hall of Fame


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