Music Therapy

Music therapy is a type of expressive arts therapy that uses music to improve and maintain the physical, psychological, and social well-being of individuals.  Music therapy may involve a broad range of activities, such as listening to music, writing original lyrics, rewriting songs/lyrics, composing, singing, and/or playing a musical instrument.  Given the interactional experience music can provide, music therapy gives a therapist and client an engaging activity through which to access and explore a client’s internal life, and encourages a client to share that internal life with the therapist.  Insight, awareness, and expression are possible outcomes of music therapy.  

Music is a form of story-telling—as such, music can be utilized to help clients “tell their story” when other forms of therapy have not been successful or useful to a client.  For clients who find it difficult to express themselves (or certain issues) in words, music provides an “avenue for communication,” increasing motivation to become engaged in treatment, providing emotional support for clients, and providing an outlet for expression of feelings.  No background in music— or any special skill—is required for a person to benefit from music therapy.

Music has been used as a therapeutic tool for centuries and has been shown to affect many areas of the brain, including the regions involved in emotion, cognition, sensation, and movement. Music is engaging in nature, has a great diversity of forms, and is uniquely effective as an “allied” therapeutic tool/intervention for a wide array of physical and mental health problems.  Because music can stimulate reward centers in the brain and often evokes positive emotions, music therapy is able to alleviate symptoms of many mental health concerns.

How I utilize Music Therapy Techniques in Session 

In her book, Sing You Home, Jodi Picoult writes that music therapy “is music performance without the ego. It’s not about entertainment as much as its about empathizing. If you can use music to slip past the pain and gather insight into the workings of someone else’s mind, you can begin to fix a problem.”  I have found this to be very true, and at the heart of why and I utilize music therapy techniques with some clients.

Music Therapy employs two intervention methods—roughly divided into “active” and “receptive” techniques. When a person is making music, whether by singing, writing lyrics, playing musical instruments, composing, or improvising music, that person is using active techniques. Receptive techniques, on the other hand, involve listening to and responding to music, such as through relaxation techniques or the analysis of lyrics. A combination of active and receptive techniques is often used as starting points for the discussion of feelings, values, and goals.  The most important objective is for the music therapy intervention to support the over-all treatment plan and the goals of the client.  I do not utilize music therapy techniques as a stand-alone treatment, rather, I weave it into the treatment plan.

Music therapy can be conducted with individuals or couples/families.  For example, songwriting is commonly used in music therapy and may involve writing original songs or modifying existing ones. A person might modify a song by changing some of the words or lines, adding new verses, or writing entirely new lyrics to match the existing tune. When songs are freely composed, the therapist may provide a starting point, an emotion or topic to begin the project. Couples and families may engage in songwriting by each member contributing words and phrases, creating a shared “project,” meant to represent the interpersonal challenge, their strengths, and/or future goals.  It is a engaging way of facilitating communication and expression!