Music therapy is the clinical use of music to treat a wide variety of physical and mental conditions in patients. Due to its versatile nature, music therapy can be applied within a number of different settings such as schools, prisons, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and rehabilitation centers. Alongside its clinical values, music therapy can be useful to healthy individuals to simply relax their senses. Various forms of music-related therapy can be traced back throughout human history. The Old Testament story of Saul and David describes King Saul as gaining relief from his moods by listening to David playing his harp. The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 400 BCE) described the benefit of the power of music to encourage or discourage warriors preparing for battle, while medieval church musicians used the various modes of Gregorian chant to express such feelings as joy or warm devotion.
Modern music therapy began during the Second World War as a tool to treat veterans suffering from mental and physical trauma. This work led to the creation of the first university degree in music therapy at Michigan State University in 1944. Through the decades, music therapy has been found to be an effective and low-cost treatment for acute and chronic pain, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, various types of learning difficulties, and social isolation. It has also been found to ease stress and improve morale among hospital staff and caregivers.
Music therapy can be applied by qualified therapists for:
- Pain reduction and management in cancer patients, women in labour, and as a replacement for local anaesthetic in dental and outpatient procedures.
- Improving or rehabilitating physical coordination and motion for stroke patients, injured athletes, and hip or knee surgery patients.
- Sensory stimulation applied in nursing homes and hospices with patients who may have visual, memory, speech, or mobility impairments, such as Alzheimer's.
- Relief of depression, fear, anxiety, and treatment of schizophrenia.
- Music can be used to help children with learning difficulties find a way to express themselves. It has also been used with rape victims and patients with post-traumatic stress disorder to explore and release strong feelings associated with their experiences.
During therapy sessions music directly reaches the nervous system, which helps to control heart and breathing rates, aid digestion, balance perspiration, and in the case of slower, more restrained music, heart rate and blood pressure have been shown to decrease. Music can also stimulate the dual release of endorphins and the blocking of nerve endings in the spinal cord, which helps to reduce physical pain and improve cognitive moods. When it comes to structuring treatments, therapists tailor their sessions to suit each patient on a case by case basis. Any conceivable type of style, period or form of vocal or instrumental music is allowed to be used, while the therapist is also permitted to emphasize one or more musical aspects such as the tempo, pitch, rhythm, melody, or harmony in order to draw the best response from their patient.
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) lists four simple methods of music therapy:
- Receptive, wherein the patient listens or responds to live or recorded music. This approach is commonly applied in the instance of pain management and stress reduction. It can also be used as a form of movement or dance-related therapy.
- Improvisation allows the patient to spontaneously create music with their voice or a carefully selected instrument. Improvisation stimulates creativity within the patient, thus releasing energy, or as an aid to help to manage painful feelings. Drumming is an increasingly popular form of improvisation among younger patients, as it involves both rhythm and a high degree of physical activity.
- Recreative allows the patient and therapist to sing or play previously composed music together. This form of music therapy is commonly used within larger, group based communal activities.
- Composition encourages the patient to write original songs or instrumental pieces. This approach is often used with children and adolescents to encourage a sense of competence, achievement, and expression of feelings.
Music therapists work collectively with a patient's treatment team. To be certified as a music therapist, a candidate must complete a bachelor's degree in music therapy from an approved university program. The candidate is also required to complete 1,200 hours in clinical training which is followed by a supervised internship. Upon completion, the candidate must take and pass a certification examination. Clinical training in music therapy includes instruction and practice in working as part of a medical, psychiatric, or special education treatment team.