Music Therapy

Music therapy is an evidence-based treatment that helps with a variety of disorders including cardiac conditions, depression, autism, substance abuse and Alzheimer’s disease. It can help with memory, lower blood pressure, improve coping, reduce stress, improve self-esteem and more. You don’t need a background in music to participate.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is the clinical use of music to accomplish individualized goals such as reducing stress, improving mood and self-expression. It is an evidence-based therapy well-established in the health community. Music therapy experiences may include listening, singing, playing instruments, or composing music. Musical skills or talents are not required to participate.

Music therapy may help you psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually, cognitively and socially. A short list of benefits includes:

  • Lowering blood pressure.
  • Improving memory.
  • Enhanced communication and social skills through experiencing music with others.
  • Self-reflection. Observing your thoughts and emotions.
  • Reducing muscle tension.
  • Self-regulation. Developing healthy coping skills to manage your thoughts and emotions.
  • Increasing motivation.
  • Managing pain.
  • Increasing joy.

Formal music therapy was defined and first used by the United States War Department in 1945. It helped military service members recovering in Army hospitals with occupational therapy, education, recreation and physical reconditioning.

Who do music therapists work with?

People of all backgrounds, ages and cultures can respond to music, and to music therapy. Notable groups music therapists have helped include:

  • Military service members and veterans. Music therapy helps you cope with trauma.
  • People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Individuals on the spectrum learn best when there is familiarity, structure, predictability and consistency.
  • Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Music therapy may help with memory and stimulate your mind because of predictability, familiarity and feelings of security.
  • People in correctional settings. If you’re incarcerated, in a mental health facility, half-way house or group home, music therapy may help with problem-solving, communication skills, relaxation and decreasing impulsivity.
  • Victims of trauma and crisis. If you’ve experienced trauma and crisis, you might have anxiety, stress and pain. Music therapy can help you with decreasing those three experiences, improving your mood, feeling confident and in control and providing a non-verbal outlet for emotions.
  • Those who are physically ill. The list includes, but is not limited to people with chronic pain, diabetes, cardiac conditions, cancer, headaches, recent surgery and people in rehab.
  • Individuals with mental health disorders. If you’re dealing with a mental health disorder, music therapy can help you with communication and expression, help you explore your thoughts and feelings, improve your mood and concentration and develop coping skills.
  • People with chronic pain. Music therapy can help decrease your pain, anxiety, fatigue and depression.
  • Substance abusers. Music therapy may help if you have a substance abuse disorder. Research has shown that it can increase motivation and self-esteem, reduce muscle tension, decrease anxiety, improve self-awareness and strengthen coping skills.

Where does music therapy take place?

The most common settings are hospitals, schools, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, mental health centers and residences for individuals with developmental disabilities. Music therapists also go to juvenile detention facilities, schools and private practices.

Is music therapy outpatient or inpatient?

Whether the music therapy is delivered outpatient or inpatient depends on the individual program. You may be able to come in for sessions during the day (just like a counseling appointment), or a music therapist may come to you while you’re admitted into the hospital or at school. Sometimes music therapy is held in groups.

Do music therapists work with children and adolescents?

Yes. Music therapy may help with the following:

  • Behavior disorders.
  • Mood and anxiety disorders.
  • Attention deficit/Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
  • Trauma.
  • Substance abuse disorders.

What happens before music therapy?

Before the session, your music therapist will assess your needs and your strengths. You may discuss:

  • Emotional well-being.
  • Physical health.
  • Physiological responses.
  • Perceptual/motor skills.
  • Social functioning.
  • Communication abilities.
  • Cognitive (mental and intellectual) skills.
  • Musical background and skills.
  • Trauma history.
  • Trauma triggers.

Your music therapist will also talk with you about any background you might have in music and your musical preferences. They will then work with you to identify goals and design appropriate music therapy experiences for the session. In doing so, they’ll consider:

  • Your music preferences and interests
  • Your age and developmental level.
  • Your physical abilities.
  • Your cognitive abilities.
  • Your trauma triggers.

What happens during music therapy?

During music therapy you and your therapist will do one or more of the following:

  • Create music. You might compose music, write lyrics, or make up music together
  • Sing music. Use your voice to share a piece of music.
  • Listen to music. Enjoy the sound and lyrics.
  • Move to music. It can be as simple as tapping your toes together or as complicated as a coordinated dance.
  • Discuss lyrics. Read or listen to the lyrics of a song and talk about their meaning.
  • Play an instrument. Use an instrument like a piano, guitar, drums, etc. to share music.

What should I expect after the music therapy?

Your music therapist will evaluate the effectiveness of the music therapy session and determine if your goals were met. You may choose to participate in multiple sessions.

Risks / Benefits

What are the benefits of music therapy?

Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in six areas: psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual, cognitive and social.


  • Music can call up repressed (bottled up) emotions that may then be released.
  • Music can lessen feelings of isolation.
  • Improved mood.
  • Decreased depression.
  • Anxiety reduction.
  • Self-expression.
  • Stress management.


  • Music can affect the body by changing your heart rate and lowering blood pressure and respiration (breathing) rate.
  • Improved motor development or processing.
  • Relaxation and/or improved sleep.
  • It can physically stimulate conscious or unconscious body movements, such as toe tapping or large body movements, and improved gait (walking) and speech.
  • Management of and/or distraction from pain.
  • Reduced asthma episodes.
  • Reduced pain.
  • Help premature infants with weight gain and sleep.
  • Help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their motor functions.


  • Music can open the door spiritually and allow you and your family the opportunity to explore your own spiritual beliefs.


  • Music can provide an increased sense of control.
  • Coping skills.
  • Lessen the effects of dementia.


  • Music can bring people together socially, not just at large gatherings such as parties, weddings, or funerals, but in more informal, intimate, shared experiences, like a hospital room
  • Help autistic children improve communication.

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people who go through music therapy? How effective is it?

Through musical involvement in the therapeutic context, your abilities are strengthened and transferred to other areas of your life. For example, you might work on vowel sounds by singing, which supports using those sounds when speaking. Music therapy can have a positive effect on many aspects of your life.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

Stay in contact with your music therapist regarding your symptoms, goals and scheduling appointments. Don’t hesitate to contact them if you have questions. Contact your primary healthcare provider if you have issues or questions with your physical health.