What is Music Therapy and How Does It Work?

What is Music Therapy
What is Music Therapy

What is Music Therapy?

Music can have a profound effect on nearly everyone evoking the full gamut of human emotions often with only a few notes. It can have the power to motivate and inspire as well as creating a calm and meditative environment in which to reflect. Association between certain pieces of music and memories is not uncommon for many people and with that a way to alter mood for better or perhaps worse.

The Ancient Greeks were supposed to have considered certain musical modes to be inappropriate for the criminal mind to experience as they had the potential to incite violence. Regardless of the style or genre of music, it is highly probable there is a piece or some pieces that have had an impact on your life and this is really where Music Therapy began.

The key components of music, harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, and textures are used creatively in conjunction with the voice and a range of accessible instruments in Music Therapy. In a broad variety of settings that include hospices, schools, care homes, and hospitals, Music Therapy uses these musical components within a therapeutic framework that allows people to explore and express their emotions freely. It opens an access point through which people can gain insights and connect with themselves and others. This can be an invaluable opportunity for many people and has the potential to support the individual’s health needs in an open and safe atmosphere.

Highly skilled and devoted music therapists deliver sessions carefully designed to facilitate therapy sessions. Over 800 people in the UK alone are registered music therapists who mostly come from a background of academic music study and are specialists in their own right.

These professionals work often in tandem with other health care specialists such as speech therapists, physiotherapists, social workers, and psychologists. It is important to note that Music Therapy is not about teaching people to play musical instruments but a method of helping people engage with themselves and others through a therapeutic relationship with music.

The concept of music being used as a therapy is not a new one. Famous ancient figures like Aristotle and Plato made it clear in their work that they believed in the restorative power of music. Dr. Benjamin Rush is thought to have been one of the first medical professionals, practising in the early 19th Century, who advocated the use of music in treating diseases. It was, however, after the horrific experiences that troops suffered during the First World War that Music Therapy could be considered to have begun.

The trauma caused by the trenches of  World War One left tens of thousands of men struggling to cope with normal life again. Musicians from all walks of life began visiting hospitals that housed the Veterans, playing music for them to lift their morale. It quickly became apparent that the positive effect the music was having on these troubled men was significant.

This, in turn, led to opportunities for musicians to train to enter these hospitals with the specific focus of helping the Veterans. In 1903 Eva Vescelius founded the National Society of Musical Therapeutics followed in 1941 by the establishment of the National Foundation of Music Therapy by Harriet Seymour.

Today there are several different types of Music Therapy that are professionally recognised and acknowledged. Helen Bonny developed a therapy that centred around individuals using their capacity for mental imagery combined with a musical stimulus to bring awareness to their condition. It has become known as the ‘Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music’.

The Dalcroze method is one of the more familiar approaches used by music therapists. Émile Dalcroze’s method is based on the use of rhythm and designed structures combined with expressive movement. This type of therapy is often referred to as ‘Eurhythmics’ and is not to be confused with the band of the same name fronted by Annie Lennox. Dalcroze evolved a system that supports people’s physical awareness through kinaesthetic experiences using music.

Similar to the Dalcroze approach is the Kodály method. Zoltan Kodály is perhaps better known as a composer but his interests were much wider. In many ways, Kodály was the catalyst for the philosophical principles on which Music Therapy has grown. Through the use of a base rhythm and sequential movement, people can improve their motor functionality and hopefully aid their recovery. The benefits for musicians have long been established too, with notable improvements to tuning or intonation, musical literacy, and rhythm during a performance.

A more recent therapy based around devised musical principles is the Nordoff-Robbins method. This has been pioneered over the last two decades bringing great successes in the field of mental and emotional disorders, autism and delays in children’s learning and development.

Through a skillfully constructed musical therapy Nordoff-Robbins take the view that everyone is capable of benefitting from their therapy that focuses on active musical creativity. Their approach has been greeted with significant approval from numerous Health Organisations around the world and there are many publications available that detail their theories and practise methods. More information about their remarkable work can be found at this link.

Neurologic Music Therapy or NMT for short is a system of some twenty clinical techniques that are used to improve speech, language, and cognition. It is widely used to improve the quality of people’s lives who suffer from a broad spectrum of challenges including Alzheimer’s Disease, cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s Disease. This particular kind of Music Therapy has proved to be highly successful and is practised widely across the world.

Each of these therapies has a slightly different approach to helping and supporting people from all walks of life. The methods may vary quite considerably but at the heart of each practice is music and the benefits it can bring to everyone. It is a growing profession that has a huge amount to offer both its participants and its practitioners.

There are many recourses and associations where can find out more information about this valuable therapy including The National Association for Music Therapy and The American Music Therapy Association.

3 thoughts on “What is Music Therapy and How Does It Work?”

  1. What type of songs work best in using music therapy to help people cope with their ailments.
    We are a band of harmonica players who entertain seniors in Senior Living Centers, We have been told that our music is really enjoyed b y the seniors, It is old time tunes.
    What can you recommend to improve our effectiveness?
    Howard Rothstein
    President, Gulfport Harmonica Club

  2. I have written two books on this subject: “Musica e Cervello. Mito e Scienza” (Zecchini ed. 2017) and “Musica e cervello2. Emozioni, genetica e terapia” (Zecchini ed. 2019)

  3. Music is medicine , I think they are going to find this out more and more . Nice article .

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