Music Therapy: Not What You Think It Is

May 17, 2009
By tbdrama BRONZE, Columbia, Maryland
tbdrama BRONZE, Columbia, Maryland
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Have you ever listened to “What a Wonderful World” and felt happier or more relaxed? Music is commonly used by people everyday to relieve stress in their lives. There are also the familiar superstitions that music will enhance a person’s IQ before a test and music will make a baby smarter if it is played before birth and in the early years of childhood. After doctors and scientists became aware of music’s effect on people, they decided to use music as an actual treatment called music therapy. What is music therapy? Is it the same as music education? Who are qualified music therapists? These are questions to which many people do not know the answers. Thanks to the development of music therapy as an alternative to the traditional treatments these questions can easily be answered. The acceptance of music therapy as a form of treatment has proved to be a valuable tool in areas such as autism, surgery, and the understanding of music therapy as a whole.
The beginning of music therapy became clear around World War I but has been recorded throughout history in biblical scriptures and historical writings from Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, and India (History of Music Therapy). “In the Bible, the young David plucked a harp to soothe the troubled soul of King Saul” (History of Music Therapy) The Greek records of music therapy claim that “the Greek philosopher Pythagoras advised daily singing and instrumental music to cleanse the emotions of worry, sorrow and fear” (Take Two Rhythm Sections and Call Me in the Morning). These were the supposed beginnings of the use of music as treatment for stress and emotional problems. During the war the doctors and nurses realized that music had a positive effect on the veterans’ psychological, physiological, cognitive, and emotional states (History of Music Therapy). The veterans continued to come in from the field with traumatic war injuries that the nurses treated with music therapy (History of Music Therapy). The music was used as an intervention to help the veterans cope with their injuries and the upsetting scenes they had witnessed. After World War I, many doctors and therapists realized that music was an important treatment, so many colleges and universities created classes and programs specifically for music therapy. In 1950 the National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT) formed by music therapists who had worked with veterans, hearing or visually impaired, and mentally disabled patients. NAMT was later renamed to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) in 1998, which is presently located in Silver Spring, Maryland (History of Music Therapy). The AMTA currently has 5,000 members, and 69 United States universities have started graduate programs in music therapy (Music is Good Medicine). Music therapy has not always been a registered profession, but it became a state-registered profession in 1999 and is regulated by the Health Professions Council (Music Therapy Section). There are many charities that benefit the music therapy cause, such as the Nordoff-Robbins charity that was founded in 1976. It is the largest charity for music therapy, and it gives awards to people who help music therapy to be recognized nationally (Music Therapy Section). Charities such as the Nordoff-Robbins and programs through universities help stress the point that music therapy is important and should be at least known about by the public. It is important for people to know the history of music therapy because it teaches people that not every treatment or therapy has been around forever, and if a group works hard enough, their efforts can pay off and help many people.
To understand music therapy as a whole, one should know the definition of it in context. The definition of music therapy is the clinical usage of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program (Music Therapy Makes a Difference). It is a music therapist using music to help someone reach a goal. Music has been called a “universal language that builds bridges between people, according to the AMTA. Music also ‘captures and helps maintain attention, enables those without language to communicate and to participate and express themselves nonverbally,’” (Teaching Through Music Therapy 3). There are many people in the world who have disorders such as autism who have trouble expressing themselves. Music helps these people learn to express themselves in a way with which they may be more comfortable. Patients sing about what they need or want, or sing something that normally is stated. This helps the patient express to others what it is that they are not as comfortable saying. To gain recognition as an official medical treatment, most experimental treatments have to show some kind of medical proof such as records, graphs, charts, or study results to prove that the treatment really works. Because music therapy affects each patient differently, it is subjective; there is no way to calculate proof of how well it works (Interview). There has been some research on music’s affects on people with different problems such as Alzheimer’s, insomnia, Parkinson’s, and autism. Research shows that listening to music can influence a person’s pulse, blood pressure, and electrical activities (Music is Good Medicine). It has been proven that music can affect a person’s brain in different ways; “Neuroscientists now suspect that music can actually help strengthen connections among nerve cells in the cerebral cortex.” (Music is Good Medicine). This could explain the common assumption that listening to Mozart before any test will raise a person’s scores. Little bits of knowledge about music therapy, such as the assumptions that Mozart raises test scores, help increase the world’s awareness and understanding of music therapy.
Music therapy sessions are lead by a professional music therapist. Music therapists take a selection of courses and tests that are Board Certified (BC), such as Musical skills and clinical skills, to become Board Certified and earn the letters MT-BC after their names (Music Therapy Makes a Difference). These letters stand for Music Therapist-Board Certified and are similar to doctors, dentists, and other therapists having special letters after their names designating a degree in their field. A professional music therapist must have a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy and must be certified by the national Certification Board of Music Therapists (Teaching Through Music Therapy). A music therapist’s job is to make an assessment of his/her client, develop a treatment plan to address the client’s needs, implement strategies, and evaluate and document findings (Music Therapy Makes a Difference). Each song or exercise pairs up with a goal for each patient. There are special songs to help the patients complete daily activities such as saying hello and goodbye or bringing a spoon of food to their mouth; there are also general songs that help patients learn days of the week and become aware of their own body parts. Lacy Kidwell, a professional music therapist from the Maryland School of the Blind said, “The song should address the needs of the patient; it should be repetitive, catchy, and something the children like to hear.” Music Therapists use the International Standards Organization (ISO) Principle-meeting the patient where they are-bringing them down to a calmer level (Interview). When a patient comes into a session angry and unwilling to work, the therapist starts the session with loud, aggressive music and then works his/her way to softer, calmer music (Interview). This may not seem like it helps the patients get closer to their overall goal, but it does calm them down so that the therapists can understand why they were angry or unwilling in the first place. From there, the therapist and patient can move on to working on whatever the goal is for that day.
Music therapy benefits children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly who have the following problems, diseases, and/or conditions:

Alzheimer's disease

Brain injuries


Migraine and other headaches

Developmental disabilities

Mental disorders


Anxiety disorder

Mood disorder


Carpal tunnel syndrome

Travel sickness


Phantom limb pain

Paralysis of leg or arm persisting after a stroke (cerebral thrombosis)

Menstruation pains

Pain after childbirth

Pain after operations

Neck and low back pains


Muscle tension

Acute and chronic pain

In work with blind people, music has facilitated the development of better auditory perception. As a means of physical therapy, music has been used to strengthen patients' weak mouth and lip muscles. (Music Therapy)
Music therapy is used to help treat many different issues such as autism, Parkinson’s, strokes, insomnia, and even post-surgery pain. Children with autism sometimes have trouble expressing themselves, so music is used as a form of education and communication (Teaching Through Music Therapy). For some people it is easier to sing than speak whereas others will sing questions they have trouble saying (Teaching Through Music Therapy). Many patients love their music therapy sessions and become happier when the music is playing than when it is off. “From the first note, the music transforms the Agnew residents. Big grins spread across their faces. Some dance, whirling around on the floor, or jumping up and down. Others clap or rock back and forth, often exactly in time with the music” (Take Two Rhythm Sections and Call me in the Morning). Music therapy after a stroke can help speed the process of recovery and stimulate the brain’s motor system in the cases of Parkinson’s (Music is Good Medicine). Music reduces levels of stress hormones and has a calming effect on the limbic system of the brain, which plays a role in emotion (Take Two Rhythm Sections and Call Me in the Morning). That was the concept behind one study where people with insomnia had their brain waves recorded by an electroencephalogram. There were key rhythms in each brain wave that were translated into musical sounds by a computer and the end result was a CD that helped the specific patient fall asleep and stay asleep. This process is called brain music therapy, and it started in Russia in 1992 (Brain Music Therapy Used to Cure Insomnia). After surgery is an opportune time to have music therapy sessions. According to the article Music is Good Medicine, “A Michigan cardiologist gave eight patients recovering from open heart surgery the option of a morphine drip or a regimen of 20 minutes of low-frequency humming as pain medications. The patients preferred the humming and their hospital stays decreased by four days.” Studies have shown that music therapy can “improve respiration, lower blood pressure, improve cardiac output, reduce heart rate, relax muscle tension, reduce pain and relieve anxiety,” (Teaching Through Music Therapy). It is important for people to know how music therapy is used because it sheds a light on other options about which doctors may not tell their patients, and it is important to have the knowledge of how music therapy is used because then people can give examples of the usage instead of just knowing what music therapy is.
A main problem that music therapists have to deal with is that there are many misconceptions that music therapy and music education are synonymous terms. “It’s not music education—we don’t want them to become Mozarts. We just want them to learn to communicate,” (Teaching Through Music Therapy). Many people think that music therapy is going into a room and learning how to play music or listening to music for a whole session. This is not how it works. A patient does listen to and play music, but he/she is doing it to reach a goal such as learning how to tie a shoe by singing a song about it. There are some music therapists who believe that even sitting in a room and listening to some favorite songs will help, but there are others who say that that could not be considered helping someone because they are not learning anything. Another common misconception is that music therapists are the people who go into hospitals and just sing for patients (Interview). This is also false information. As was stated before, music therapists must complete a specific course and obtain a degree in music therapy. They then go through the process of assessing, developing treatment plans, implementing the plans, and evaluating the changes in their patients. It is important for people to know the difference between music therapists and music teachers or people who go into hospitals with a guitar and sing to patients because there are many misconceptions about who the music therapists really are and what they do in their job.
Doctors have typically prescribed the standard treatments such as physical therapy and the normal pain medications as rehabilitation or treatment of diseases. Now that the proof of music working in medical situations is being published for the world to see, people with even the slightest knowledge of music therapy can ask for that treatment instead of the standard ones. It is a non-toxic, no drugs, no pain, remedy and people who go through music therapy would probably recommend it to anyone. As far as the research has shown, there have been no negative effects of music therapy on any studied patients.

Works Cited
Alyari, Steven, Jonathan Riccio, and Joyce Benson. "Music Therapy."
Alternative Medicine Online. 16 Feb. 2009
American Music Therapy Association. Music Therapy Makes a Difference. N.p.: n.p., n.d
"AMTA Professional Competencies." AMTA Professional Competencies. 30 Nov. 2003.
American Music Therapy Assn. 18 Dec. 2008 competencies.html
Castleman, Michael. "Take Two Rhythm Sections and Call Me in the Morning."
San Jose Mercury News 12 July 1998: 16+. SIRS Renaissance. ProQuest. 30

Sept. 2008
Gilbert, Kathy. "Teaching Through Music Therapy." Chattanooga Times & Free Press
20 Feb. 2007: 1+. SIRS Renaissance. ProQuest. 16 Sept. 2008
Gottschalk, Mary. "Brain Music Therapy Used to Cure Insomnia." 26 Nov. 2008. 3 Dec. 2008
"History of Music Therapy." Music as Medicine. U Hospitals Of Cleveland. 6 Nov.
Kidwell, Lacy. Personal interview. 3 Nov. 2008
"Music Therapy Section." Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy. 6 Nov. 2008

The author's comments:
Throughout this school year I have been researching music therapy in a class called Independent Research. We each have to have a final project for the class, and I would like to submit the paper I wrote about my research as my project.

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This article has 1 comment.

on Oct. 19 2011 at 10:32 am
kc.marsh93 BRONZE, Clinton, Connecticut
1 article 0 photos 1 comment
What a great definition essay about music therapy! You obviously had a lot of research and passion while writing this. More people need to be aware of music therapy's effects and how it is a growing field. I encourage you to write more about music therapy especially highlighting the psychologly aspect of it's work.

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