music therapy
What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
Health Benefits
How To Choose a Practitioner

What Is It?

Music therapy is the use of music to induce relaxation, promote healing, enhance mental functioning, and create an overall sense of well-being. Individuals doing music therapy typically listen to or create music under the guidance of a specially trained and certified music therapist. Considered one of the "creative arts therapies" or "expressive therapies" (which include art, dance, poetry, and drama therapies, as well as psychodrama), music therapy can be used alone or in conjunction with other therapies or healing treatments.

Music therapists work with all age groups, from infants to the elderly, and can be found in a variety of settings, including private practice, schools, senior centers and nursing homes, outpatient clinics, psychiatric and medical hospitals and hospices.

Music as therapy is almost as old as civilization itself. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that music could facilitate healing, as did early Native Americans, who used chanting and other musical practices as part of their healing rituals. In the United States, music therapy as a formal discipline was first employed during World War I to help disabled soldiers in Veterans Administration hospitals. The first music therapy degrees were granted in the 1940s, and the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) was founded in 1950 (under a different name).

How Does It Work?

Most people tend to experience a visceral reaction to music: a burst of energy upon hearing an upbeat song or a sense of calm during a soothing classical piece. Music therapy harnesses this connection between music and moods. Moreover, scientific studies show that music can affect physiological functions, such as respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure. Music has also been shown to lower amounts of the hormone cortisol, which becomes elevated under stress, and to increase the release of endorphins, the body’s natural "feel-good" hormones.

Music therapists often use music to communicate. With its beat, melody, and lyrics, music is a kind of language in and of itself. Because of this, music therapy can be used to help persons with mental and physical disabilities express themselves. It can also encourage introverted patients to become more outgoing and can be used to reduce isolation for people with autism or schizophrenia. Music therapy also can be beneficial for people who have had strokes and others with neurological problems through a process called "entrainment." When patients listen to rhythmic music, their muscle movements become synchronized with the beat. As their motions become more regular and efficient, their motor skills improve in turn. Entrainment can also induce a sedative, relaxing response if the music has a slow, steady rhythm.

Music therapy can also distract patients from negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences. For example, music therapy has been effective at helping keep people's minds from dwelling on the pain of dental work, surgery, and labor.

What You Can Expect

Because music therapists work in many different settings and with many different kinds of patients, treatment programs and durations vary.

If you consult a music therapist for a particular condition, the therapist will first talk to you about your symptoms and needs. In addition, the therapist will assess your emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities, and cognitive skills through your musical responses. Using this information, an appropriate treatment program will then be designed, which will probably include playing and listening to music, analyzing lyrics, composing songs, improvising, and/or using rhythmic movement. During your regular sessions, the therapist may participate in these activities with you or simply guide you. You may also be encouraged to talk about the images or feelings that are evoked by the music.

You and your therapist will select the music used for your therapy according to your needs and tastes. You can choose any kind of music, from classical or new age to jazz or rock. You do not need to have previous musical experience or even musical ability to undergo music therapy.

Some music therapy is conducted in a group setting. You might perform music with others who have the same ailment or condition as you, or interact and relax with others as music plays in the background. If you are in the hospital for surgery or to give birth, your music therapy might simply entail listening to your favorite songs to help you relax and reduce pain.

Health Benefits

Studies have shown that music therapy can be effective at promoting relaxation, relieving anxiety and stress, and treating depression. It has been studied in hospitalized patients with burns, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Music therapy allows people with emotional problems to explore feelings, make positive changes in mood, practice problem solving, and resolve conflicts, and has been useful in Group therapy in mental health institutions.

As a complement to rehabilitation care, it can strengthen communication and physical coordination skills, and improve the physical and mental functioning of those with neurological disabilities or developmental disorders. It is useful in newborn care of premature infants, and when children undergo medical and surgical procedures. Those with learning disabilities and speech and hearing problems may also find music therapy helpful. Music therapy can be used to reduce the need for medication during childbirth and to complement the use of anesthesia during surgery and dental work. It is also used to help ease chronic pain.

Music therapy can also improve the quality of life of terminally ill patients and enhance the well-being of the elderly, including those suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. It has also been used to complement the treatment of AIDS, stroke, Parkinson's, and cancer, and support the families of ill patients. Given the broad nature of such applications, formal reviews of the music therapy studies are needed to reach conclusions as to how many people could by helped by music therapy for their condition. At this point, most such reviews have been published by the American Music Therapy Association.

How To Choose a Practitioner

Music therapists work in private practice, in institutional settings, and as part of treatment teams that can also include psychiatrists, psychologists, rehabilitation counselors, and primary-care practitioners. There are an estimated 5,000 music therapists currently practicing in the United States.

Make sure your music therapist has completed an approved college music therapy curriculum, including an internship. The therapist should also have earned the credential of Music Therapist, Board Certified (MT-BC) from the Certification Board for Music Therapists, or one of the following designations from the National Music Therapy Registry—Registered Music Therapist (RMT), Certified Music Therapist (CMT), or Advanced Certified Music Therapist (ACMT).

To find a qualified music therapist in your area, ask your primary-care physician for a referral or contact the American Music Therapy Association at 8455 Colesville Road, Suite 1000, Silver Spring, Maryland, (301) 589-3300, visit the AMTA website at, or email:

Try to interview several therapists before making your selection; you should feel very comfortable with the therapist you choose.


Music therapy is not for everyone. Some people become agitated by the therapy and some do not respond to it at all.

If you have a specific symptom that you'd like treated with music therapy, consult your primary-care physician first to rule out any serious underlying medical problems. (Revised 7-12-04).

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Date Published: 04/19/2005
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