Music Therapy: What Is Music Therapy and How Does It Work?

11 min readJun 20, 2022

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” — William Congreve

Music therapy is an expressive therapy that uses music for a patient’s needs. Patients do not need musical talent or prior experience with music. Therapy may include singing, composing, listening, or playing instruments.

The therapist encourages the patient to improve and compose music during therapy sessions. Improvisation can support patients to better release and express their emotions. While composing music can help clients learn to process their feelings.

Musical therapists believe that people have a connection to music. And the therapist tailors the musical therapy according to the patients. Each patient has goals, moods, emotions, or problems they want to tackle.

Music could be a medicine for wellness as much as entertainment in our free time. But using music for healing is still very much a new domain of study in science. Scientists are still studying how songs, frequencies, and rhythms provide these health benefits.

Purpose of Music Therapy

Musical therapy has entertainment values, and clients might love music. But it’s not only for entertainment. Music is the instrument for non-musical benefits like improving coordination, health, or speech. It’s not like taking music lessons to improve an instrument.

The therapeutic relationship with the patient is also essential besides musical expression. Participants note how the therapeutic relationship helps draw out their creative selves. Also, the therapist can help clients process emotions better than if they were alone.

Through music therapy, the therapist works with the patient to reach non-musical goals:

  • Reduce anxiety or stress
  • Improve communication skills
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Better quality sleep
  • Address health problems like depression, bipolar disorder, physical disabilities, and more.
  • Improve motor function or fine motor control
  • Managing anger, frustration, or control behaviors

Music can provide many non-musical benefits. And, of course, going to a concert has entertainment value, but there are other benefits. For example, the person might feel more relaxed and have fewer negative emotions.

And some benefits come with learning how to play instruments. For example, playing an instrument gives more refined motor skills and self-esteem. Instrument playing will also provide an outlet for someone to relieve anxiety.

What Do You Do in Music Therapy?

People come to music therapy with different issues. The therapist designs a program involving music for the patient in music therapy. The music therapist would assess the client’s problems and establish proper goals.

The therapy includes listening, creating music, or playing an instrument. And the client might come in contact with music from various genres and musical styles. There would also be contact with different instruments involved in music.

Music therapy has two parts: active and receptive techniques. The active techniques include musical expressions like singing, composing, or improvising. In contrast, receptive techniques include responding to music, dancing, or analyzing the lyrics.

Music therapy sessions could be different. Some are individual therapy sessions, and some are together in a group. And the settings vary as well, and it might not be in an office.

Which Hormone Is Released While Listening to Music?

People have used music therapy to help ease painful experiences. And a hypothesis is that music can help secrete a hormone called endorphins. The endorphins secreted may act on receptors that create a reduction in pain.

A hormone that factors into the pleasure sensation of music therapy is dopamine. A study describes dopamine as having an effect as the cause of the pleasure-sensation. It proves a connection between the effects of dopamine from engaging in music.

Another effect on the body from music therapy is the production of Immunoglobulin A (IgA). An experiment discovers that typical music can increase the IgA in the listener. The researchers have also found that harmonic notes from a piano also increase IgA. It is a type of antibody that for fighting against sickness. Children born with low levels of IgA have a higher risk for autoimmune diseases.

In another experiment, music seems to affect people’s testosterone levels. The testosterone level decreased in males from listening to music. In comparison, the testosterone level increased in female listeners. Testosterone connects to many human behaviors, such as aggressiveness and sensation seeking.

The effect of the music’s pace shows an impact on the secretion of cortisol and oxytocin. There was a significant increase in oxytocin levels from listening to slow-paced music. But with a decrease in cortisol levels from fast-paced music. A hypothesis is that cortisol connects to the excitement of fast-paced music.

Oxytocin is essential for mental wellness, and low levels connect to depression. The increase of oxytocin is possible through natural means like exercise or giving a hug. The effect of the study shows that oxytocin may be the reason for the relaxation from soothing music.

How Does Music Therapy Affect Your Mood?

The notions that music is as essential as caffeine and medicine are not false. Music can influence a person’s heart pressure, heart rate, and pulse. The ability of music to modulate the human body explains why it produces a calming effect for people.

Music therapy also helps counter the negative moods in people with addictions. And people in a depressed mood became less depressed after hearing music they liked. Also, there were emotional changes in a single session with songwriting and analysis. The subjects in the research were people with substance use disorders.

Music has an aesthetic quality that provides comfort during times of distress. In cancer patients, music offers an escape from the harsh reality. Music has the power to elicit memories and can provide a source of distraction from troubles.

For cancer patients, the interactions with their musical therapist also helped their mood. The therapist can provide social support and help manage the fluctuating mood. In the findings, the cancer patients preferred music therapy. The combination of music and therapeutic support provides emotional stability.

One study on post-stroke patients found that music therapy was helpful for their mood. The patients (over 66%) reported that music therapy created a positive psychological change. The study shows that music therapy improves the patient’s moods.

Another study also highlights that music therapy improves mood. Patients enjoyed sharing experiences through music and playing instruments. The enjoyment of creative arts that allowed more expression was more enjoyable.

The effort of music therapy also works for infants and can help make infant care easier. Lullabies that musical therapists craft can decrease the stress on parents. Live sound increases feeding behavior and enhances bonding in infants.

How Can I Do Music Therapy at Home?

There are many ways someone at home can use music therapy methods. One of the most accessible techniques someone can try doing is creating a playlist. It can be a playlist of songs they want to listen to when feeling down. Or a list of songs to dance or sing with to express emotions.

Another idea to try out is to play an instrument. There are classes that someone can take or follow along with online instructions. Playing an instrument helps process emotions and focus attention on something else.

At home, it is also possible to try out songwriting. In music therapy, the therapist guides the patient in songwriting. It is a technique that can help patients deal with emotions through a creative outlet. At home, someone can use simple instruments to make their music. Equipments do not limit people making music at home. There are free online resources for making music.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Music Therapy

Disadvantages of Music Therapy:

Emotional Triggering: The therapist needs to be careful in crafting the sessions. Music has a powerful ability to shift the internal emotional state of listeners. Some songs are uplifting, and some can create more anxiety.

Traumatic Memories: Besides creating powerful emotions, music can also bring back memories. For example, it might bring back confusing memories for people with dementia. And for patients with PTSD, there must be caution about evoking traumas.

Needs Consistency: As with other therapy, results aren’t clear through a few sessions. For parents, there may be specific tasks that they need to do at home after the weekly session. And there’s no determination in how long it would take to see the progress since people are different.

Advantages of Music Therapy:

Alleviating Anxiety: Music can help calm the troubling emotions in patients. It can also reduce feelings of sadness and depression. Also, music can reduce cortisol levels, which elevate itself in stressful situations.

Enhance Learning: Another benefit is that music can enhance the outcome of learning. And listening to music with a fast beat helps students improve their learning.

Brain Plasticity: Through music training, the brain has increased neuroplasticity. The plasticity of the brain is vital in particular for slowing aging. And it is also essential for the brain to recover from lesions or diseases.

How Does Music Therapy Affect the Brain?

There are a lot of ways that music therapy can affect the brain. For example, in one study, music enhances children’s general reasoning abilities. Also, musical training increases the children’s sound sensitivity and verbal skills.

Research has shown us that music can do incredible things to the human brain. College students who listened to rock music before a test had better results. And musical background music enhanced learning in mentally challenged students. Listening to music with a fast tempo (158 bpm) shows accelerated cognitive performance. But why does music produce these effects, and how does it connect with the brain?

In trained musicians, their brains have high anatomical and structural differences. Also, their brain has increased plasticity to change and re-wire itself. Their brains also have more grey matter volume associated with memory and decision-making.

Research on children also has the structural change in the brain from music. There were structural changes to the children’s brains after 15 months. The improvements were in areas responsible for motor skills and auditory skills. The research suggests that long-term contact with music can help further neuroplasticity.

When listening to music, the blood flows into the brain to areas for reward and reinforcement. The areas control goal-seeking behaviors and motivations. The nucleus accumbens also plays a role in locomotion and learning. Thus, listening to pleasurable music can help regulate behaviors.

Another research with a theory suggests why music boosts memory and learning. That paper states that music enhances memory in people with memory deficits. And it explains that music connects with essential areas for emotions. So, through this connection, music activates the brain’s reward system during learning. Hence, music makes learning more rewarding.

Music Therapy and Dementia

Dementia is a neurological condition in which pharmacological intervention shows limited treatment effect. But music therapy helps to a degree for patients with dementia. The effect stems from the ability of music to induce the brain to form new connections. As a result, music stimulates neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and change. And it enhances the plasticity of the brain by decreasing neuronal degeneration.

In another study, music therapy shows influence in controlling mood change. The dementia patients had decreased marks of irritability and lower stress levels. This study records these changes from sixteen sessions of music therapy.

Music affects dementia because music stimulates essential parts of the brain. For example, it can prompt the areas responsible for motor skills and recalls. The location of the brain that connects emotional behaviors. The brain areas like the prefrontal cortex and hypothalamus.

Another benefit is that music therapy has a positive effect on socialization. Music therapy promotes socialization in dementia patients and improves mood. It reduces non-physical aggression behaviors and verbal aggression in dementia patients as well. Lowering problematic behaviors improves patients’ and carers’ quality of life.

Music Therapy for Depression

Depression is a problem that affects many people worldwide. And it affects a person’s daily life, appetite, and wellbeing. And it affects the person from being able to do meaningful tasks or focus on their tasks. At worst, it might lead to suicide, and there are 1 million lives from suicide every year.

And some studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of antidepressant medicines for depression. For example, one study shows that 4/5 of depressed patients improved with placebos. And a 14% improved difference between taking antidepressants instead of placebo pills.

Music therapy, combined with usual therapy, increases the effectiveness of treatments (source). But the study didn’t show musical therapy to be more effective than other treatments. And it compares music therapy to psychological, pharmacological, and other therapies.

But musical therapy shows more improvement for patients with depression than psychotherapy. In that study, classical and baroque music decreased the frequency of depressive symptoms. And music affects dopamine production, which is essential for positive emotions. Hence, it activates those brain areas responsible for dopamine.

There are many studies there that highlight music therapy for depression. There’s also research on music therapy on over 250 young adolescents and children. Music therapy reduced depression and elevated self-esteem. Self-esteem and depression connect, and increasing self-esteem lowers depression.

And besides the reduction of depression, some studies have highlighted other benefits. For example, with music therapy sessions, subjects had improved emotional empathy. The patients were also more stable in emotion after the music therapy sessions.

Music Therapy for Anxiety

Music has a unique power to ease anxiety by helping people find words for emotions. It can bring us back to fond memories of the past and express ourselves. Music allows people to express feelings when expressing in words is difficult.

Music shows to reduce anxiety in hospitalized patients. It could be from the music’s ability to soothe the mood and distract the patient. After surgery, patients in the music condition have much lower anxiety levels.

Music therapy has also helped comfort anxiety in patients with cancer undergoing surgery. There was a gradual reduction in the patient’s anxiety within three days. And, the anxiety in patients with therapy was half of the group without therapy.

Music can reduce anxiety by influencing the human stress response. The researcher states that music decreases the body’s response to stress. Subjects recovered faster from stress if they listened to music before the situation.

Music Therapy vs. Talk Therapy

The most significant difference is that music therapy uses music as a tool. Language is not a limitation in music therapy and doesn’t depend on communication. Unlike talk therapy, music therapists can work with people with speech difficulties. And patients can be people with physical or developmental needs besides psychological cases.

In traditional therapy, talking is the core of talk therapy. And patients resolve their problems by talking about them with the therapist. But, there are different talk therapy. Every kind of talk therapy uses diverse methods to explore issues. Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are other names for talk therapy.