Why Music Therapy?

Most music therapists I know have an “elevator speech” prepared and ready for the inevitable question that weaves its way almost daily into our lives: “So, what exactly IS music therapy?” We all come up with a 10-second blurb that aims to somehow accurately explain music therapy without whipping out the ukulele or pulling up research articles on our phones.

My current speech: I work with children and adults with disabilities and use music to accomplish non-musical goals.

Short and sweet! If further interest is expressed, I’ll usually give an example of how I would use music to work on a specific goal and then talk a little about Voices Together. I welcome these questions, because they allow me to advocate for my field and educate others on the many benefits of music therapy.

All of that being said, I often wish I could take more time out of my day and really explain why music therapy is so effective. That is the inspiration behind this blog post! Here are five reasons music is a powerful therapeutic tool:

  1. Our Bodies are Wired for Music

Some of our brain’s neural networks appear to exist for the sole purpose of processing music. That’s to say that some circuits aren’t necessary for speech or sound recognition and only seem to be active when listening to music. What does this mean for the use of music in therapy? What are the implications for working with clients with, say, Alzheimer’s or a Traumatic Brain Injury? It’s exciting to think about all the possibilities.

  1. Music is Motivating

Do you have a certain song that serves as an alarm every morning? Maybe you like to make cleaning the kitchen a little more exciting by singing along to your favorite album. Research has shown that when you listen to music that you love, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the same chemical that is released when you eat something delicious… like chocolate! Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Music is motivating because our bodies are rewarded for listening to it. Incorporating music into therapy can have powerful results because it makes therapy naturally rewarding.

  1. Music is Emotional

I’m sure we all have at least one song that is guaranteed to make us tear up a little when we hear it. Confession: I have a pretty vivid memory of ugly crying down the highway to Adele’s “Someone Like You,” shortly after a college breakup. And you know what? I felt a million times better after getting that energy out. Music has the ability to speak to all different emotions. Can you imagine what a scary movie would be like without the fear-inducing tunes? What’s a wedding without that perfect song for the first dance? How fast a song is, whether it’s in a minor or major key, how loud it is, lyrics, can all cause different emotional responses. Music therapists harness the emotional aspects of music to bring more depth into therapy.

  1. Music is Social

Imagine seeing one of your favorite musicians at Madison Square Gardens in NYC. The seating capacity at the Garden is 18,200! I find it to be incredibly beautiful and powerful that 18,200 people can come together, from all walks of life, to share something as emotional, moving, and purely human as music. The music psychologist, Stefan Koelsch, has found that music affects our ability to connect with each other. Music triggers circuits in the brain that are related to trust, cooperation, and empathy. As a music therapist, and someone who has received therapy myself, I know that opening up to a therapist (i.e. a complete stranger!) can make you feel extremely vulnerable. Music can facilitate a strong therapeutic relationship quite quickly by creating that trust, cooperation, and empathy.

  1. Music has Structure

Most of the popular songs on the radio today have pretty similar structures. There are usually a few verses with a chorus in between them. Sometimes they’ll get fancy with a bridge, but for the most part the music we like is organized, predictable; and that is pleasing to our brains. Imagine a group of six elementary-aged children with various developmental disabilities in a music therapy session. A goal of this group might be to learn basic social skills, such as taking turns. Using song structure, a music therapist could develop an activity that uses music to prompt, say, passing a drum to a peer. Music therapists are trained live-musicians as well as trained clinicians, which allows the therapist to adapt the music to each specific client, meeting her where she is and gearing the music to her success.

If you read this post and would like to learn more about music therapy, I encourage you to check out the American Music Therapy Association website: http://www.musictherapy.org/

You might also like to check out Voices Together’s website: http://voicestogether.net/

Thanks for reading,

Kacie Walker, MT-BC

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