Music therapy is an effective and evidence-based modality of therapy geared towards using music as the predominant medium by which we actively work towards our clients’ goals.
Music is incredibly effective at engaging the limbic system of our brains, otherwise known as the “emotional core,” by activating our hippocampus, amygdala, corpus callosum, thalamus, and more. Music’s reach does not stop at the limbic system. It activates nearly every major brain structure that we use in our everyday lives, facilitating communication and growth (literally and figuratively – a musician has larger corpus callosum than a non-musician) between both hemispheres and all lobes, thereby increasing our brain’s ability to communicate between its parts more effectively and efficiently. This means we can expect general progress like better hand-eye coordination and quicker improvisational problem-solving skills in addition to whatever else we are working on that is individualized towards the client!
Take a second to think back through some of the most impactful positive moments in your life; I guarantee that music is a part of at least a few of them in some way. In fact, people use music as a therapeutic practice all the time, listening to music that they enjoy alone or with others, which, in turn, makes us feel more accepted, validated, excited, and even understood at times, which also tends to create positive and meaningful memories for us.
Some therapeutic uses of music are: listening to music you like, playing an instrument as a way to destress after work, going to a concert with your friend(s)/family/partner(s), writing/producing/recording songs, and watching YouTube videos about the meaning of your favorite artist’s songs. These, however, are not necessarily music therapy, though they are therapeutic. Music therapy for the first example of “listening to music you like” could be: listening and discussing memories/emotions attached to specific songs with a music therapist, potentially tying it to one of the goals you and the therapist are working toward.
Obviously, music can be very therapeutic, but many don’t realize it can also be just as harmful if we aren’t aware of its effects on us. We all have negative experiences where music was a part of the equation as well, maybe it was in the background of a traumatic event or we had a negative experience in lessons as a child that contributed to perfectionism. This is (arguably) one of the main reasons why music therapists exist: to guide clients through the process safely and warmly, keeping in mind the pros and cons of the elements of music that can both facilitate growth and progress and those that can harm us based on our personal history. A music therapist understands the chemical component of music listening and how it can affect blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, cortisol production, etc.
A music therapist’s primary job in this process of healing is to determine what goals we are working on and how to best adapt the musical experiences to the individual receiving therapy. For example: someone struggling with depression and anxiety stemming from a feeling of worthlessness may be a great candidate for adapted therapeutic songwriting and/or lyric analysis to work on the goal of increasing self-worth while simultaneously feeling less isolated. This is one example of many of the different applications of music therapy in a therapeutic setting. Others can include: participating in group music-making to increase social cohesion skills, looking at case studies of popular (and/or unpopular) musicians to better understand our favorite artists and further develop critical thinking skills and better understand/connect to their art, creating personalized playlists to aid in regulating our emotions when we feel unbalanced, etc.
Hopefully, this gives you more of an idea of what music therapy is and isn’t, as well as a better understanding of what you could receive from music therapy sessions! Everyone can benefit from some form of music therapy, which makes it one of the most adaptable and situational modalities to be found.