Music Therapy and Mental Health: Healing Through Music

There’s no denying that music has a strong psychological impact. Different types of music can significantly impact a person’s mood, helping them delve deeper into their consciousness to process a wide range of emotions. And it’s not just because music evokes feelings; there’s research-backed science behind the effect music has on us.

Studies have demonstrated that music impacts numerous parts of the brain, including those involved in emotion, cognition, sensory, and movement. In fact, music therapy for mental health has been utilized as a therapeutic aid for millennia. Music therapy is successful in treating a wide range of physical and mental ailments, including depression, anxiety, and hypertension.

Doctors and clinicians began to recognize the substantial impact of music on the healing process when touring music ensembles performed for injured service members during and after both World Wars. They urged that hospitals employ professional musicians, eventually leading to the development of specialized training in the partnership of music therapy and mental health. Let’s look at where music therapy for mental health stands today and how our young people can benefit from music.

What is Music Therapy?

Clinical music therapy is the only profession that actively uses supporting evidence-based science to the creative, emotional, and energetic experiences of music for health and educational purposes. Music therapists use innovation, receptive listening, lyric discussion, imagery, performance, and learning through music to assess numerous areas of a person’s emotional well-being. They also participate in interdisciplinary treatment planning, ongoing evaluation, and follow-up.

Listening, singing, playing instruments, and producing music are examples of music therapy activities. One of the best things about music therapy is that it’s not necessary to have any musical abilities or capabilities to participate in or benefit from this form of treatment. This allows for a unique level of accessibility. Music therapy mental health sessions are generally conducted by a board-certified music therapist and can be done either one-on-one or in groups. Depending on each person’s needs, music therapy can be used in tandem with other treatments when necessary.

A music therapist works with people from many walks of life with various neurodiversities. Those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, dementia, and people with disabilities are all examples of people who can benefit from working with a music therapist. Trained professionals employ several diverse music therapy and mental health treatments for cognitive, physical, emotional, and social needs. Re-creating music, songwriting, improvisation, and lyric analysis are some of the more common treatments. Because what happens during a session will depend entirely on each person’s mental health, music therapy strategies will vary based on their specific needs.

The Psychology of Music Therapy

We all have a primordial sense of rhythm, which music taps into, creating cathartic experiences that humans have long recognized. Therefore, it’s not surprising that there’s a link between music and mental illness treatment. According to the American Music Therapy Association, modern music therapy originated after WWII. When local musicians performed for veterans in hospitals, soldiers appeared to recover faster (both physically and emotionally), encouraging institutions to bring on more professionals for the job.

Music therapy and mental health techniques are still used for hospitalized patients suffering from illness or injury. However, music therapy is used for people suffering from physical ailments due to its effect on their mental state. It can assist patients in coping with emotional stress and help them feel more confident, cheerful, and connected to the world around them. This, in turn, leads to more optimistic mindsets, which have been proven to assist in physical recovery.

Music for mental health is processed and generated in a different way than spoken language. Bypassing that channel of communication and not needing to rely on spoken words, patients can express themselves more freely, interact with loved ones on a deeper level, and have a stronger sense of their place in the world. For example, patients who have experienced trauma often have a difficult time verbalizing their feelings or describing the particular event(s). Music therapy — specifically the lyrical aspect of music — helps them express their struggles. As one music therapist said, lyrics are an “easier gateway for expression” than the spoken word.

There have been several musical therapy articles discussing how music therapy and mental health programs have assisted people in overcoming the challenges in their lives. In one case study, researchers tracked the effects music therapy had on the development of a 3-year-old girl diagnosed with childhood apraxia. Over the course of nine months, the young girl was seen for 24 sessions. In what has been dubbed a data-based music therapy method, the music therapy treatment included a combination of behavioral, improvisational, and artistic approaches.

The music therapists employed a range of musical, visual, and interactive aids and an engaging, entertaining discussion between the child and the clinician. The success of her music therapy treatment was undeniable. At the start of her treatment, the child’s communication techniques were virtually entirely nonverbal. By the end, she was able to pronounce syllables and create combination sounds.

The Benefits of Music Therapy

Now that we know how music therapy and mental illness interrelate, we can clarify why music can be helpful to those who struggle with their mental health.

Developing effective coping mechanisms

Certain breathing methods, rhythmic and auditory grounding, musical relaxation, and diversion are some of the coping skills that music therapy can teach people. These tactics are taught in music therapy so that when a crisis occurs, one learns how to use them effectively and cope with external influences or triggers.

Positive emotional behavior development

Music therapy can assist in identifying and naming emotions in a safe setting, which can lead to improved communication with others. Emotional awareness and nonverbal expression are also part of emotional behavior. Music therapy can help people learn to securely communicate their feelings vocally and nonverbally to improve emotional regulation.

Increasing your tolerance for frustration

Music therapy allows people to work on frustration tolerance in a controlled atmosphere while doing something creative. A music therapist, for example, might ask the patient to participate in a structured improvisation based on themes related to mental health (e.g., triggers, overcoming frustration, coping with an onslaught of emotions during a panic attack). Practicing these internal reactions is part of developing strategies for dealing with frustration and avoiding being sent “over the edge.” In tandem with learning to deal with negative emotions like frustration, music therapy can also assist clients in developing relaxation skills that can be used before, during, or after demanding situations.

Improving interpersonal communication

While mental health is often considered private, it significantly influences our interpersonal connections. Isolation or lashing out are common symptoms of a mental health struggle. These interactions can happen with family, friends, significant others, colleagues, or a stranger on the street. Music therapy for mental illness can help people practice social skills that they can then apply in their everyday lives. These sessions are usually done in a group environment in music therapy, but sessions may also be done privately.

Improving one’s self-image

Mental health issues can harm self-esteem and negatively affect our picture of ourselves. Music therapy can build self-confidence and increase awareness of one’s own behavior. When you’re at your lowest, it’s challenging to be kind to yourself. A music therapist can help people identify the positive traits that they’ve lost sight of (or, sadly, perhaps never even noticed about themselves). Not to mention, the simple act of creating music and/or engaging with others builds self-esteem in and of itself.

How Music Therapy Can Translate to Music Education

Music therapy has the potential to benefit young people in a number of ways, and there are many reasons why music is important for child development. One of the most common mental health problems that young people struggle with is anxiety. Whether it’s due to an inability to control surroundings or the discovery of the unpredictability of the world, music therapy can help. One music therapy strategy where this is particularly helpful is improvisation, as it helps young people become more comfortable with “making things up as you go along” in a safe setting. Music therapy can also help young people who have a hard time with interpersonal relationships. For example, students who play music in a group are provided a supportive and positive space where they can connect with others, without the need to talk.

Music education in schools is an excellent way to provide music therapy to students in a natural environment. Studies show that music programs in schools lead to higher test scores, fewer disciplinary issues, and over a 90% graduation rate. While school administrations may wish to incorporate music therapy for students exhibiting depression symptoms such as anxiety, lashing out, or difficulty concentrating, the benefits of music education can be extended to all students. Music therapy in music education may include:

– Instrument play and instruction (piano, guitar, drums, hand percussion, etc.)

– Educational concepts through music (colors, shapes, counting, etc.)

– Group sessions and/or individual sessions

– Singing or voice instruction

– Movement to music (improvisation dancing, learning choreography, etc.)

– Sung books/stories

– Lyrical writing

Music teachers are not expected to be therapists, but schools may seek music therapists to assist their music programs. Examples of supportive music therapist roles in schools include:

– Music Therapist Consultants can help design and implement musical experiences for students with disabilities.

– Direct Service Music Therapists can assist the music educator either outside or inside the classroom. These specialists can also provide personalized attention to specific students who may need assistance developing the skills to interact with their classmates.

Who Can Benefit from Music Therapy?

Everyone from children to the elderly can benefit from music therapy. It can be conducive for those with mental health needs, specifically social, developmental, and learning disabilities. Music therapy delivers a unique approach to mental health and opens avenues for healing and expression that simply aren’t available in other forms of therapy. While it can assist in the development of communicative, social, emotional, and cognitive skills for people of all ages, starting young people with music therapy early can have a huge impact on their development. It can help develop skills for autonomy and prepare young people for physical, social, and emotional changes later in life. And don’t let the word “therapy” affect you — students with special needs are not the only youngsters who can benefit from music therapy. Music therapy can assist all developing youth by providing an engaging educational opportunity that gives young people structure and meaning in their lives.

Support the Power of Music

The connections between music therapy and mental health are undeniable, particularly in young people. At Save The Music, we believe that music education is crucial for a child’s development, affecting their academic performance, social skills, and who they will become in life. We help students, schools, and communities reach their full potential through the power of making music. If you’re passionate about music in schools, check out our online music education resources or contact us about our music foundation’s impact to learn more.