Music is a wonderfully strange thing in that it’s almost impossible to pin it down to a single definition.
For many, music is their job. Whether they are a rockstar, a member of an orchestra or a music teacher, music is something used to pay the bills. For some, music is a hobby, as they engage in it to pass the time or as a creative outlet. For others, music is simply organized noise, something to pick apart and study with rigour to try and understand it.
Yet, for others still, music has become a medium to help them recover and heal from mental illnesses. This practice—referred to as music therapy—has been gaining traction over the past decade, but information about what it is, exactly, has yet to become mainstream.
What is music therapy?
In defining music therapy, we’ll first turn to two major organizations that act as infrastructure for music therapists and facilitate music therapy training: the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) and the World Federation of Music Therapy (WFMT).
Both of these organizations give lengthy definitions of music therapy, but for the sake of expediency, I’ll condense these definitions into three quintessential points.
- Music therapy is conducted by professionals with extensive and dedicated training, similar to that of a practicing psychologist, but reduced in scale. While music therapists don’t need a doctorate to practice, per se, they do require large amounts of clinical experience and substantial education.
- Music therapy has many of the same goals as traditional therapy: to address and alleviate the physical, mental, emotional, cognitive and social needs of patients.
- An integral part of music therapy is the therapist-patient relationship. Without this, it is not music therapy.
As for what actually happens during a music therapy session, it is largely defined by how a therapist wants their client to try and interact with the music played throughout the session.
Based on a therapist’s discretion, they and their client (or clients) might engage in either solo or group therapy that focuses on one of two types of music therapy—active or receptive.
Active music therapy focuses on an active engagement (facilitated by a therapist) between a patient and music, and includes practices such as improvisational, recreative and compositional music therapy. The key point is that you are actively performing, creating or even moving to music in a way that helps you achieve one of your therapeutic goals during these sessions.
Research speculates that engaging in active music therapy helps people gain insight into their relational and emotional problems by opening up when discussing the music they’ve created.
Receptive music therapy, on the other hand, is a much more passive affair, with clients simply listening to and interpreting the music they hear while being guided by their therapist. Examples in this category of music therapy include music-assisted relaxation and imagery, guided imagery and lyric analysis.
Receptive music therapy banks on the fact that music can be a powerful mood inducer. It can make us feel joyous, melancholy, wrathful and anything and everything in between. Intentionally listening in this way can help us reduce our stress, soothe our pain and raise our energy levels.
What’s more, when guided by a therapist, focusing on the imagery created during therapy can help clients reduce their anxiety levels and become more comfortable when sharing experiences with their therapist.
As for what music is actually played during these sessions, there’s no one right answer. Although classical music has historically been a part of musical interventions, it’s possible for both the therapist and their client to bring songs to the therapy session that they want to be played. This means that the possibilities for the music being played during receptive therapy can vary widely.
Does music therapy work, and if so, how?
To answer these questions, we have to narrow what we mean by “work.” There has been substantial evidence that music therapy can help alleviate depression, reduce anxiety and improve functioning. However, for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, there is no definitive proof that music therapy can help improve these conditions.
So, for people with depression, it’s an alternative to traditional therapy that’s worth considering, especially if traditional interventions have not been effective. For those suffering from mental illnesses other than depression, traditional therapy might be a more consistent option.
One thing worth mentioning is that when music therapy is undertaken in addition to traditional therapy, the ability to reduce anxiety and improve functioning may be superior in comparison to using traditional therapy alone. So if you’ve the time and resources to participate in two types of therapy, this is well worth considering.
Now that we know that it can work, the question is, exactly how does music therapy work? There is no clear answer to this question. Music elicits brain activity everywhere, from our brainstem (an area of the brain typically associated with reflexes or unconscious regulatory activity) to our frontal lobe (the seat of higher-order reasoning). While there is some evidence of music’s ability to impact activity in a specific brain area (the right frontal lobe), this is still a very general and large area of impact.
One area where the relationship between music and the alleviation of depression is slightly clearer is music’s effect on the regulation of serotonin. Deficits of this neurotransmitter have been firmly linked to the presence and severity of depression, and are the main target for anti-depressants.
Research suggests that music can increase the levels of serotonin found within our bloodstream, thus explaining, in part, why simply listening to music can help improve or change our mood. However, this musical prompted uptick in serotonin is relatively short-lived, so it shouldn’t be taken as an alternative to traditional medication or therapy.
To wrap things up
On the basis of extensive supporting evidence, music therapy is a viable option for those seeking treatment for depression or select mental illnesses. It’s not exactly clear how music does the things it does, as music can trigger a lot of activity within our brain. However, music’s ability to change the levels of serotonin in our bloodstream does suggest that there is a neurological basis for the beneficial effects of music, and conversely, music therapy.
Like all therapies or medical treatments, music therapy is just one option among many, and its pros and cons should be evaluated with a sober eye before you decide to participate in it.
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