What is music therapy? | Features | MN2S

In celebration of World Music Day, we explore how music therapy works.

21st June is World Music Day. Founded in Paris in 1982, the event is now celebrated in 120 countries worldwide. At the heart of World Music Day is the idea of playing music outside in public spaces, for the joy of it and not for money, in order to bring live music to a wider audience.

This is important not just because it spreads enjoyment and happiness, but because it is good for the public’s mental health. Listening to music has proven medical effects, so it’s no surprise that professional psychiatrists have created ‘music therapy’ as a way to help patients overcome various illnesses.

How music therapy works

Music therapy sessions take place between a therapist and an individual or a group of clients. Clients can be any age from newborn babies to the elderly. Each session involves, in some capacity, the playing of music. Therapists will assess each client to determine what kind of music therapy they need, depending on their condition.

Conditions that music therapy can treat include Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, autism, brain injury, pain, mental health and schizophrenia. For a full list of conditions music therapy can be used to treat visit the Music Therapy Association of British Columbia website.

There are many reasons that music therapy has a medical impact, all of which are rooted in the brain’s musical processing. Our brains are hardwired to respond to music. All humans can innately process rhythm and melody in the same way they can learn and process language. Our responses to music are physical and emotional, not just mental. A fast-paced rhythm will increase our heart-rate, while a slower, serene composition will help us relax. Music therapists can create bespoke therapy programs for clients to give them the kind of healing music they need.

What is music therapy used for?

In most cases, music therapy will be used as part of a broader treatment program. Clients with poor mental health, for example, will likely be receiving conventional therapy alongside music therapy. But just as a musical score can heighten the emotion of a film, music therapy can tap into areas of feeling that more traditional therapeutic methods cannot.

Music can also tap into our memories, which is why it works so well as a treatment for dementia. When a patient listens to a song that they associate strong memories with, those memories might be recalled.

Make no mistake, though, music therapy is never a substitute for medication. And it has to be practiced by a professional. Listening to or playing music alone does not count as music therapy, even if it can have positive effects.

Many listeners do report the positive impact of ‘healing meditation music’. While not technically a form of music therapy, listening to music as a way to help concentrate on meditation can have an effect.

The NHS-endorsed practice of mindfulness is heavily dependent on regular meditation. This is traditionally practiced in silence, or with a vocal guide. Some experts argue that listening to music at the same time as meditating can be distracting and counterproductive, but no one would deny that concentrating on peaceful music can be an effective form of relaxation. Mindfulness practice must involve silent or guided meditation, but musical relaxation has undeniably helped many people lower their stress levels.

In many ways, music can help us heal and recover from medical conditions. If you’re interested in receiving music therapy, training as a music therapist, or simply finding out more, contact the British Association for Music Therapy.

For an insider’s look at the workings of music therapy, read our interview with Harriet Crawford from the Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity. For more on music’s healing qualities, read our page on musical medicine.

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