The Impact of Music Therapy on Mental Health

DEC. 19, 2016

By Molly Warren, MM, LPMT, MT-BC


When I worked at a psychiatric hospital, I would wheel my cart full of instruments and musical gadgets down the hallway every morning. Patients lingering in the hall would smile and tap on a drum as I passed by. Some would ask me if I had their favorite band on my iPad. Some would peek their heads out of their rooms, and exclaim, “Molly’s here! It’s time for music therapy group!” Oftentimes, I would hear about patients who were asleep in their rooms when I arrived, but their friends would gently wake them with a reassurance: “You don’t want to miss this.”

Music to My Ears

I’ve been lucky to serve many children and adults in various mental health settings as a music therapist. I’ve heard stories of resilience, strength and adversity. I’ve worked with individuals who have experienced trauma, depression, grief, addiction and more. These individuals have not come to me in their finest hour, but despite feeling lost or broken, music provided them with the opportunity for expression and for experiencing safety, peace and comfort.

Research shows the benefits of music therapy for various mental health conditions, including depression, trauma, and schizophrenia (to name a few).  Music acts as a medium for processing emotions, trauma, and grief—but music can also be utilized as a regulating or calming agent for anxiety or for dysregulation.

There are four major interventions involved with music therapy:

  1. Lyric Analysis

While talk therapy allows a person to speak about topics that may be difficult to discuss, lyric analysis introduces a novel and less-threatening approach to process emotions, thoughts and experiences. A person receiving music therapy is encouraged to offer insight, alternative lyrics and tangible tools or themes from lyrics that can apply to obstacles in their life and their treatment. We all have a song that we deeply connect to and appreciate—lyric analysis provides an opportunity for an individual to identify song lyrics that may correlate with their experience. 

  1. Improvisation Music Playing

Playing instruments can encourage emotional expression, socialization and exploration of various therapeutic themes (i.e. conflict, communication, grief, etc.).  For example, a group can create a “storm” by playing drums, rain sticks, thunder tubes and other percussive instruments. The group can note areas of escalation and de-escalation in the improvisation, and the group can correlate the “highs and lows” of the storm to particular feelings they may have.  This creates an opportunity for the group to discuss their feelings further.

  1. Active Music Listening

Music can be utilized to regulate mood. Because of its rhythmic and repetitive aspects, music engages the neocortex of our brain, which calms us and reduces impulsivity. We often utilize music to match or alter our mood. While there are benefits to matching music to our mood, it can potentially keep us stuck in a depressive, angry or anxious state. To alter mood states, a music therapist can play music to match the current mood of the person and then slowly shift to a more positive or calm state.

  1. Songwriting

Songwriting provides opportunities for expression in a positive and rewarding way. Anyone can create lyrics that reflect their own thoughts and experiences, and select instruments and sounds that best reflect the emotion behind the lyrics. This process can be very validating, and can aid in building self-worth. This intervention can also instill a sense of pride, as someone listens to their own creation.

On Another Note

When I worked at a residential treatment center, I was notified that a child refused to continue meeting with his usual therapist. Even though he was initially hesitant to meet with me, he soon became excited for our music therapy sessions. 

In our first session, we decided to look at the lyrics of “Carry On” by FUN. I asked him to explain what it means to be a “shining star,” which is mentioned serval times in the song.  I was expecting this 8-year-old to tell me something simple, like “it means you’re special.” But he surprised me when he stated, matter-of-factly: “It means that you are something others notice. It means you are something to look up to, and you are something that helps others navigate.”

And just like that: This lyric offered the opportunity to discuss self-worth, resilience, and strength. Music provided him with the structure and opportunity to process in an engaging way. Soon, his therapist began attending our sessions to help build a healthier therapeutic relationship. His family and teachers reported improved emotion regulation and social interaction skills. Music therapy had provided countless opportunities for building healthy relationships, just as it has for thousands of others.

Try it for yourself! Check out the American Music Therapy Association to find a board certified or licensed music therapist near you.


Molly Warren, MM, LPMT, MT-BC received her Master’s in Music Therapy with a focus in Psychology from Colorado State University.  Warren specializes in working with individuals with trauma and neglect backgrounds and other behavioral disorders.  She also has experience in working in an acute psychiatric facility in which she has worked with adult, adolescent, and pediatric general mental health populations.  Her philosophy is to introduce novel and authentic modalities to best reach the needs of her clients to create a genuine and individualized experience.  Warren currently works in her own private practice, Olive Branch Therapeutic Services.  You can visit her website at


JUN, 01, 2018 05:33:35 PM
Tree of Life
I wholeheartedly agree with the previous comment - 'Great article, we must make music therapy an insurable therapy. Better than mind and physical altering drugs'

MAR, 07, 2018 07:16:13 PM
Would really live it if my bosses let me keep my music softly playing while working. It truly does help me keep my rage under control. Im fearful if the take it away i will hurt people. And i dont want to do that. Ive tried talking to them and practically begging them to let me keep it. So now not only am i in fear of loosing control of my impulses due to extreme bipolar stuck in manic mode. Is there anyone who can help??

SEP, 01, 2017 10:09:08 AM
Sandra Docherty
Looking for music group for my son Allan 37 stay in govan he has metal illness loves is music can play anything354

JUL, 25, 2017 11:33:42 AM
laxmi mehta
I have son 33 years old he needs music therapy I live in Raleigh nc please give me the information where I can take him for music therapy thanks

MAY, 16, 2017 02:06:21 PM
Ellen K
My name is Ellen and i think the sun is the moon and obviously a tree makes a noise when it falls the question is dumb and not focusing on the question of hearing but actually producing a noise in the *****ing forest

DEC, 29, 2016 12:54:58 PM
Betty Jones
music is the best therapy that there is and it makes me want to do things that I dont normally want to do and that is a miracle.

DEC, 29, 2016 04:06:25 AM
Cheryl Winfield
I would not want to forced to play/learn an instrument under the false pretense of therapy if I didn't feel comfortable or want to do it in the first place. I am more comfortable to listen to music I have heard on YouTube, then be 'pressured' in a group. I get the sense of "if you are in this group session, you have to play an instrument". My problem is that if my mother or other people she knows or other relatives, they will (I know they will) want me to entertain them, or show them what I can do-like a prized animal or thing.

DEC, 28, 2016 08:29:51 PM
peter wscott
I use music therapy all the time it helps me focus concentrate majorly when I use the therapy. everyday I listen to music and my thoughts are clear and good--now let show you this is about there are many online tools use one is a website called Spotify fmental focus button I use this every now and then it helps peter scottify

DEC, 28, 2016 07:42:40 PM
Guy Edouard
This is great and I am currently working on adding music as a connection tools for my private practice in Brooklyn.
This is very encouraging and a plus to push me to that realization by integrating music as a therapy tool to my private practice.

DEC, 28, 2016 06:51:59 PM
Phoolmatee Dubay
Lyrics are like words of poetry to me because music became an coping method for me when I needed distraction, words to connect too, and people who knew of similar experiences of sadness, joy, withdrawal, and happiness. And today still listen to music and lyrics for comfort and other emotions and feelings.

DEC, 28, 2016 06:31:06 PM
mitch kato
Sometimes between Reason and Mental Illness there are only silence (or even not-silence.)

DEC, 28, 2016 04:55:33 PM
Jeff Simpson
Awesome article! As some one diagnosed with sz I always enjoyed music as an outlet and an opportunity for expression. Thanks for the great article!

DEC, 20, 2016 08:57:56 AM
Kathleen O'Reilly
Great article, we must make music therapy an insurable therapy. Better than mind and physical altering drugs.

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.