What is music therapy?

Source: Canadian Association for Music Therapy

Music therapy is the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development.

Canadian Association for Music Therapy / Association de Musicothérapie du Canada Annual General Meeting, Vancouver, British Columbia, May 6, 1994

Who benefits from Music Therapy?

Music therapy is used with individuals of various ages, abilities, and musical backgrounds in institutional, community and private practice settings.

Music therapists use various active and receptive intervention techniques according to the needs and preferences of the individuals with whom they work. These techniques include, but are not limited to the following:

Singing is a therapeutic tool that assists in the development of articulation, rhythm, and breath control. Singing in a group setting can improve social skills and foster a greater awareness of others. For those with dementia, singing can encourage reminiscence and discussions of the past, while reducing anxiety and fear. For individuals with compromised breathing, singing can improve oxygen saturation rates. For individuals who have difficulty speaking following a stroke, music may stimulate the language centres in the brain promoting the ability to sing.

Playing instruments can improve gross and fine motor coordination in individuals with motor impairments or neurological trauma related to a stroke, head injury or a disease process. Instrumental ensembles can enhance cooperation, attention, and can provide opportunities for practicing various leadership-participant roles.

Rhythmic based activities can be used to facilitate and improve an individual's range of motion, joint mobility/agility/strength, balance, coordination, gait consistency and relaxation. Rhythm and beat are important in "priming" the motor areas of the brain, in regulating autonomic processes such as breathing and heart rate, and maintaining motivation or activity level following the removal of a musical stimulus. The use of rhythmic patterns can likewise assist those with receptive and expressive processing difficulties (i.e. aphasia, tinnitus) to improve their ability to tolerate and successfully process sensory information.

Improvising offers a creative, nonverbal means of expressing thoughts and feelings. Improvisation is non-judgmental, easily approached, and requires no previous musical training. As such, it helps the therapist to establish a three-way relationship between the client, themselves and the music. Where words fail or emotions are too hard to express, music can fill the void. Where learning ability is limited, the opportunity to try different instruments, musical sounds, timbres and mediums may provide an opportunity for mastery of a new skill and increase life satisfaction.

Composing / Songwriting is utilized to facilitate the sharing of feelings, ideas and experiences. For example, with hospitalized children, writing songs is a means of expressing and understanding fears. For people with a terminal illness, songwriting is a vehicle for examining feelings about the meaning in life and death. It may also provide an opportunity for creating a legacy or a shared experience with a caregiver, child or loved one, prior to death. Finally, lyric discussion and songwriting can help express feelings and thoughts that are normally socially unacceptable, while fostering a sense of identification with a particular group or institution.

Listening to music has many therapeutic applications. It helps to develop cognitive skills such as attention and memory. For example, for those facing surgical procedures, it allows the individual an opportunity to exert a sense of control over their often unpredictable environment. During pregnancy, music listening can provide a connection between the uterine environment and the external environment following delivery. During childbirth music listening can facilitate and support the different stages by promoting relaxation and providing distraction for the labouring mother. In situations where cognitive perceptions are comprised, such as in early to mid stage dementia, listening can provide a sense of the familiar, and increase orientation to reality. For those with mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, music listening can facilitate increased openness to discussion and provide motivation for engaging in social activity.