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The rise of music therapy

By Scott Huntington


Music therapy involves the use of clinical, evidence-supported musical interventions to meet a patient’s specific goals for healing (a useful fact sheet). The music therapist should have the proper credentials and be licensed in the field of music therapy.

Music therapy is performed in rehabilitation centers such as 12 Keys Rehab, psychiatric and even general hospitals, private practices, nursing homes, schools, etc. to treat a wide variety of issues, including social, cognitive, emotional, and physical needs. After an initial assessment, the music therapist prescribes a treatment plan in which the patient sings, moves and dances, creates, or simply listens to music. This experience facilitates a healthy outlet for patients to communicate and express their feelings, in addition to rehabilitating the patient physically.

Rand De Mattei, a music instructor with Blues in the Schools, gets in tune with Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyreen S. McRae, a participant in neurologic music therapy, at Naval Medical Center San Diego Feb. 28. Neurologic music therapy helps Wounded Warriors recover.
Rand De Mattei, a music instructor with Blues in the Schools, gets in tune with Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyreen S. McRae, a participant in neurologic music therapy, at Naval Medical Center San Diego Feb. 28. Neurologic music therapy helps Wounded Warriors recover. Photo by Lance Cpl. Lisa M. Tourtelot, United States Marines. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Music therapy and special populations

As it has become more prevalent, music therapy has proven to be useful for a wide variety of populations. One such population is victims of crisis and trauma. After the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City, the American Music Therapy Association founded The New York City Music Therapy Relief Project. The goal of the project was to serve the children and adults living in the metropolitan vicinity by providing them with music therapy services. Some of these music therapy programs were customized with the specific needs of caregivers in mind, targeting teachers, counselors, social workers, doctors, and nurses. More than 3,000 teachers and students were served through eleven different music therapy programs that reached out to eight local schools.

Music therapy has also been used in the treatment of mental illness. In addition to the basic care they should be receiving, music therapy helped patients with schizophrenia to achieve an enhanced mental state along with improving their overall condition. What’s more, music therapy has been shown to drastically reduce the unwanted symptoms these patients sometimes experience, making them more capable of having conversations with other people, thereby alleviating feelings of isolation and giving them more of an interest in what is going on around them.

Along with helping those suffering from schizophrenia, music therapy has also been used as an effective way to treat clinical depression. Studies have shown that when adolescents who were depressed listened to music, they had a notable drop in the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and the left frontal lobe of their brain was activated, which was reported to be a positive outcome.

Those who struggle with anger have also benefited from music therapy treatments. When assessed with the Achenbach’s Teacher’s Report Form, music therapy patients made significant improvements on the scale of aggression and hostility. Studies suggest that group sessions of music therapy allow patients to express themselves in a positive way, transforming their aggression and rage into healthier forms of communication

While music therapy can go a long way in improving the mental health of a patient, it can also help in more physical ways. For one thing, music therapy lowers a patient’s perception of their pain so that what might normally be extremely painful becomes a much more tolerable experience. For patients suffering with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, music therapy has been known to lower incidences of nausea and anxiety, sometimes significantly lowering the fatigue, anxiety, and pain of those in hospice care.

Talking to a music therapist

I caught up with Alyssa Regan, who is in her second year in the master’s equivalency program for music therapy at Immaculata University. She’s also near the end of her full-time internship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

How have you personally seen music therapy work on someone?

I was planning on having a session with one of my patients that I had been seeing regularly since the beginning of my internship. This patient was only 16 months old and suffered from many medical complications. When I arrived at his room, I noticed an entire medical team standing around his bed; his monitor was beeping, his heart rate and respiratory rate were so erratic that numbers weren’t even showing. My patient’s face was red and he seemed to be writhing in discomfort. With approval from the medical team, I came in and began to quietly play guitar. Around the same time, the patient was given some medication. As I began to sing, my patient’s face calmed. I aimed to match the tempo of my music with his breathing and then gradually slow it down. His HR and RR appeared on the monitors and slowly decreased. After 20 minutes or so, his vitals were stable and he was asleep. After the session, one of the nurses said, “Well, either you’re a miracle worker or those drugs kicked in extremely fast!” I’m sure the medicine had a little to do with it, but it was also the music.

Since you started studying music therapy, have you seen it grow?

Yes. I think that more of the general population is beginning to recognize it as a credible field, especially as it seems to be gaining more publicity recently (e.g. the Gabby Giffords documentary and the recent segment on the news about music therapy with premature infants). I hope it continues to grow!

Is music therapy becoming more recognized in hospitals, nursing homes, etc.? 

I think it is becoming more recognized in general, which hopefully means that there will be more jobs available. The most growth seems to be happening in hospice care.

How do you see music therapy expanding over the next ten years?

Ideally, I’d like music therapy to be seen as important as physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy. Will that happen over the next ten years? Probably not. However, I would not be too surprised if every hospice care organization, children’s hospital, and major medical and psychiatric institution in the United States had at least one music therapist on staff in ten years.

Scott Huntington is a percussionist specializing in marimba. He’s also a writer, reporter and blogger. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son and does Internet marketing for WebpageFX in Harrisburg. Scott strives to play music whenever and wherever possible. Follow him on Twitter at @SMHuntington.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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Recent Comments

  1. Erin

    As a board-certifed music therapist, it’s great to see so much positivity and success rates in music therapy in the media as of late! However, just as an important FYl, we are music therapists, not musical therapists. Thanks!

  2. Brian

    Synthesizers are my music therapy. The element of exploration and immediate feedback do wonders for a restless mind.

  3. Josh

    Awesome! I remember a Master’s thesis submitted by a nurse friend who proposed the use of music therapy in nursing care unit and in rooms with comatose patients. Although it was a bit sort of “give” that music has some sort of therapeutic relief with it, I wasn’t so convinced with the medical or scientific explanation about it. Reading this article makes me want to go to my friend’s house now and tell her to push through with her thesis since she’s planning to stop her Master’s as of the moment and take the offer from a London-based hospital.

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