What is music therapy?

Question: What exactly is music therapy?  Do you have to have musical skills to appreciate or benefit from it?

Answer: Dr. Annie Heidersheit, a board certified music therapist, with degrees in music therapy and education and counseling, writes:
Seventeenth century English dramatist William Congreve was way ahead of his time when he wrote, “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” Or maybe he was just the first music therapist.

Music therapy is the use of music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of a group or individual. It employs a variety of activities, such as listening to melodies, playing an instrument, drumming, writing songs, and guided imagery. Music therapy is appropriate for people of all ages, whether they are virtuosos or tone deaf, struggling with illnesses or totally healthy.

Music therapy touches all aspects of the mind, body, brain and behavior. Music can provide a distraction for the mind, it can slow the rhythms of the body, and it can alter our mood, which in turn can influence behavior.

Trained and certified music therapists work in a variety of healthcare and educational settings. They often work with people suffering from emotional health issues such as grief, anxiety, and depression. They also help people address rehabilitative needs after a stroke, a traumatic head injury, or with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.

Music therapy sessions are designed with a number of factors in mind, including the clients’ physical health, communication abilities, cognitive skills, emotional well-being, and interests. After weighing these factors along with the treatment goals, the therapist decides to employ either the creative or receptive process. (Note that you do not need to have musical abilities to benefit from either process. The music therapist will ensure that the activities address the needs and abilities of the client!)

In the creative process, the music therapist works with the client to actively create or produce the music. This may include composing a song, engaging in music or song improvisation, or drumming. In the receptive process, the therapist offers music listening experiences, such as using music to facilitate a client or group’s relaxation. Clients or groups may then discuss thoughts, feelings, or ideas elicited by that music.

Music therapy sounds great (no pun intended). But does it work? The body of research surrounding music therapy continues to grow; check out the reports in the Journal of Music Therapy. You can also learn more about music therapy, including how to find a qualified therapist, by visiting the American Music Therapy Association.