Music Therapy: Everything You Could Want to Know

Music therapy is increasingly being used to achieve emotional, cognitive, physical, and social goals in therapy. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to music therapy since the goals and approaches will be tailored to the needs of each person in therapy.

Music is a powerful tool that can do the following:

  • Elicit positive emotions
  • Invoke memories
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Enhance focus and attention
  • Promote learning
  • Reduce stress
  • Provide relaxation
  • Aid in communication

When you listen to music, it can make changes to your brain, increasing levels of dopamine and having a positive impact on your mood.

Music therapy uses evidence-based methods that encompasses a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and educational goals as a therapeutic approach.

What Is Music Therapy?

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as an evidence-based clinical intervention provided by a credentialed professional that uses musical interventions to accomplish specific non-musical educational and health care goals.

Music therapy uses a variety of different activities to positively impact social, emotional, cognitive, or physical needs of an individual or group. It can be applied one on one or in a group setting.

Music therapy can improve motivation and help individuals achieve specific goals through a therapeutic relationship with a clinician. It may involve playing an instrument or listening to music.

Types of Music Therapy

There are a variety of types of musical therapy models and methods that can be beneficial for a variety of participants. These are some of the most common types of musical therapy:

  • Bonney method: This approach uses mental imagery and music to focus on psychological and physiological issues to increase awareness, promote healing, and help find solutions.
  • Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT): This approach focuses on the brain’s reaction and changes related to music as well as the neurological response to music to instigate positive changes in the brain.
  • Kodaly method: This type of music therapy uses sequence, rhythm, notation, and movement to foster learning and healing in the participant.
  • Dalcroze method: Dalcroze eurhythmics focuses on structure, rhythm, and movement expression to teach music, which also can be used as a therapeutic technique.
  • Orff-Schulwerk: This type emphasizes education while using music to improve learning. It is especially helpful for children with developmental disabilities and delays.
  • Nordoff-Robbins: This approach focuses on music creation to help people find benefit and meaning from music. It is often used when working with children with disabilities and delays.

There are also musical therapy techniques that use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with music to modify behaviors while reinforcing others. Cognitive behavioral music therapy (CBMT) is highly structured.

Techniques Used in Music Therapy

There are four main types of musical therapy interventions or techniques.

  1. Receptive or listening: With this form of intervention, the clinician will play music and have the participant listen and respond in a specific way. This can be verbal or nonverbal, such as through art or dance. It can be used to invoke particular imagery or promote relaxation. Goals for a receptive intervention can often be to help with auditory skills, for stimulation, to enhance mood and reduce anxiety, and to facilitate memory.
  2. Recreation: Using songs that have already been created, the participant is encouraged to sing or play along in a certain way to accomplish specific goals. These goals can include enhancing fine and gross motor skills, fostering self-expression, aiding with turn-taking and social interactions, and encouraging use of one side of the body.
  3. Improvisation: Participants are encouraged to make music on their own spontaneously with their voice, body percussion, or simple instruments. The therapist will listen to the music being played to interpret moods and respond accordingly. This type of intervention provides the participant with freedom and flexibility as well as the ability to choose for themselves. It can help participants, particularly nonverbal individuals, communicate and express themselves, and it can aid with building relationships through music.
  4. Composition: With composition or songwriting, the participant is encouraged to create their own musical creation. This can include musical composition, lyrics, or both. These musical creations can be recorded and/or performed later.
    This intervention can help to allow individuals to express themselves, foster creativity, express emotions and thoughts, and validate experiences.

Another type of musical therapy intervention can involve lyric analysis where individuals are able to process thoughts, experiences, and emotions through analyzing lyrics of songs, which can provide a non-threatening approach to talk therapy.

Who Is a Candidate?

Music therapy can benefit nearly everyone and can span demographics and various population groups. It can help children, adolescents, adults, and seniors.

Candidates for musical therapy typically include the following:

  1. Children, adolescents, and adults with learning and developmental disabilities and delays, such as autism and down syndrome
  2. People with Alzheimer’s disease
  3. Those suffering from brain injuries
  4. People with physical disabilities
  5. Individuals struggling with substance abuse issues
  6. People with acute and chronic pain
  7. Adults, children, and adolescents experiencing high levels of stress or mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder
  8. Those with muscular or central nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s disease

Benefits of Music Therapy

Music therapy can have both physical and mental health benefits for a wide variety of conditions and concerns.

Music impacts both the brain and body. From a physiological standpoint, music can help to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. It can help to relax muscle tension and even ease pain.

Music therapy also influences the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which can aid in movement abilities, memory, learning, impulse control, focus, and motivation.

Music can activate the senses and create a positive emotional response, helping to decrease anxiety and depression and increase self-esteem and communication abilities. Music can also offer a safe space and form of creative expression.

What Music Therapy Can Help With

Music therapy can positively influence several regions and functions of the brain. This can make it beneficial for a variety of physical and mental health conditions alike.

Mental Health Conditions

Music can improve self-awareness, self-worth, and self-reliance. As a result, it can have a variety of applications for mental health conditions.

Music therapy can be an alternative approach to more direct therapy forms. It can help individuals to identify feelings and thoughts and provide a way to express themselves. Music therapy can be a tool for creative expression, aid in emotional and trauma processing, and promote relaxation.

Music therapy has been shown to help with the following mental health conditions:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality disorders
  • Affective disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Childhood psychiatric disorders
  • Depression and mood disorders

Physical Conditions

Music therapy can have a variety of benefits for a number of physical conditions, illnesses, and disabilities. It has been shown to be effective for helping to treat and manage the following:

  • Physical disabilities: Music therapy can help to provide structure and help with movement, the accomplishment of specific physical goals, and overall relaxation. Music therapy can foster the development of physical functioning, helping to maintain or restore it. It can also assist with socialization and emotional goals for people of all ages and disability ranges.
  • Pain management: Music therapy can help to manage pain when used as an adjunctive treatment during painful procedures. Music therapy promotes relaxation, which can reduce the necessary amount of sedation needed during these procedures.

    Music can also help focus an individual on a different type of stimuli instead of recognizing the pain. This helps to activate brain pathways in different ways.
  • Alzheimer’s disease: Research shows that music therapy can help to treat both behavioral and cognitive issues related to Alzheimer’s. It can lower agitation, help with relaxation, and engage social interactions. It can potentially help a person to feel more connected and therefore might assist in improving functioning.
  • Autism and neurodevelopmental disorders: Music therapy can be used as an adjunctive treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders potentially, as it can improve social functioning. It may also have positive effects on oral and written language skills and social functioning.

Effectiveness of Music Therapy

Music therapy has proven effectiveness for a variety of mental health and medical conditions. It has also been shown to assist with communication, relaxation, and stress reduction.

Studies have shown that music therapy can improve sleep quality, depressive symptoms, gait and related activities in Parkinson’s disease, and social and global functioning in serious mental health disorders, including schizophrenia.

Additional studies have shown that participating in music therapy over time reduces depression levels, particularly in elderly participants. Researchers have also found that music can help to reduce stress, treat pain, and help preterm babies recover.

Overall, musical therapy is a safe and effective means of treating a variety of conditions.

What a Music Therapy Session Looks Like

Music therapy sessions will differ based on each person and their specific needs and circumstances, but there are some common components. A music therapy session will start with an opening exercise, move on to the interventions, and end with a closing.


The musical therapy session will commonly begin with a formal opening, which helps the participants to transition into the musical therapy space. This can be the same opening session after session to provide a sense of continuity and familiarity.

The session may often open by singing a “welcome” or “hello” song, which is particularly helpful when working with children. The opening can also be a review of the previous session. In a group setting, the session can begin with a check-in question asked to everyone in the group.

Musical Therapy Interventions

The majority of a musical therapy session will include the therapy interventions, which can work through several different types of interventions or stick with a more in-depth work through one type of intervention. Each intervention is meant to target a specific therapeutic objective and goal.

The music therapist will use specific interventions to target life goals by using music. This can include listening to, creating, composing, or performing music to accomplish non-music-related goals.


The closing of the session may be similar to the opening, providing a transition out of the therapy session. This can also include using a “goodbye” song, a summary of what transpired during the session, or a check-in with each member of the group.

Like the opening, the closing can also be the same or similar in each session to indicate to the participants that the session is ending.

Music Therapy Resources

Music therapists work in a variety of settings. This type of intervention is often included as part of a complete treatment program in conjunction with other medical and mental health interventions.

AMTA provides a directory search tool where you can search for a qualified music therapist in your area. Music therapy is often covered by insurance, and your insurance provider can often help you find local covered providers.

Your doctor and mental health professional may be able to offer referrals for music therapy providers near you. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers resources on music therapy as well.

While music therapy won’t replace traditional forms of therapy in your overall treatment plan, it can be a solid adjunctive treatment that benefits many patients. If you think it might be a good choice for you, talk to your therapist or mental health provider about next steps.


Get Legal Streaming Music for Your Enterprise Business

Start Free Trial

No credit card required