By Melinda Murray, MM, MT-BC
Although rooted in ancient civilizations and found in every culture, music is often not recognized as central to wellness and therapeutic services. However, through my academic and professional work as a music therapist, I have witnessed the healing power of music.
Music therapy is an evidenced-based, safe and effective form of treatment provided by trained professionals and can be a part of a successful treatment program for people with mental health needs. If you’re interested in exploring music therapy, here is what you need to know.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is “an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals.”
Starting with an assessment, a qualified music therapist develops a treatment plan, including a variety of music-based activities to address the clients’ needs and desires for treatment. Through this process, clients can improve depressive symptoms, increase emotional expression, develop positive relationships, address loneliness, grief and loss — and improve their overall quality of life. Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves using words.
The following activities serve as interventions to address goals around self-regulation, coping skills, emotional expression, enhanced mood, social interactions, attention and focus:
Listening to music: This can include listening to music for relaxation, performance improvement, to regulate internal systems (such as blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) and to reminisce on past memories or experiences.
Musical re-creation: This approach can address self-expression by playing or singing along to new or familiar tunes.
Improvisation: Improvisation is the act of creating unplanned music alone or with someone else. This can increase connection and engagement and foster self-expression. It can also increase attention and focus through active listening and response.
Songwriting: A client and music therapist will work together to create and notate instrumental and/or lyrical music. This technique can address emotional and social goals for the client.
Music games and lessons: This approach uses planned musical activities to promote rehabilitation in an engaging way.
Music therapy can help people in many areas of life. This may include emotion and mood regulation, psychological stability, physical health, spirituality, cognitive maintenance/development and social benefits. Other benefits of music therapy include:
A professional music therapist holds a bachelor's degree or higher in music therapy from an AMTA-approved college and university programs. The curriculum focuses on: musical foundations, clinical foundations and music therapy principles as specified in the AMTA Professional Competencies. In addition to the academic coursework, the bachelor's degree requires 1200 hours of clinical training, including a supervised internship. Graduate degrees in music therapy focus on advanced clinical practice and research.
Music therapy is offered in both individual and group formats in child and adolescent behavioral health, as well as with adults. Music therapists are found in many settings, including inpatient and outpatient psychiatric hospitals, detoxification and relapse prevention programs, forensic or correctional settings, private in-home services and many more. It has demonstrated effectiveness for clients living with schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders, bipolar and related disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, substance-related disorders, trauma and stressor-related disorders, disorders, personality disorders and more.
Music therapy is also an effective treatment method for children with mental health needs. Because of the nonthreatening nature of music, children often respond well to music interventions and enjoy this treatment model. When guided by a clinical music therapist, music can help children and adolescents:
The same rules apply for seeking music therapy as any other mental health service. When symptoms are interfering significantly with your day-to-day life, with your ability to go to or be productive at work/ school or interfering with your relationships, music therapy may be a good treatment. If you’re looking to improve depressive symptoms, improve emotional expression, foster positive relationships, or address loneliness, grief and loss, then you should consider pursuing this model of treatment.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing grief, living with substance abuse and/or dependence, have experienced a traumatic event or sustained trauma, music therapy would be a good avenue to address these concerns.
To learn more, The American Music Therapy Association recommends accessing “The Journal of Music Therapy: (JMT) and “Music Therapy Perspectives” (MTP) social media channels:
Melinda Murray, MM, MT-BC is a Board-Certified Music Therapist with 12 years of experience working at Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich. Her undergraduate degree is from DUNY Fredonia in Music Therapy and Minority Studies, and she received her master’s degree from Western Michigan University in music therapy with a master’s certificate in holistic health.
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