10 Questions Every Person Should Ask About Music Therapy

Music therapy has shown itself to be a powerful and effective treatment of a wide variety of chronic or acute physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, ailments, and conditions including anxiety, pain, muscle strengthening, and emotional, social, and behavioral health challenges.  If you are considering trying music therapy, here are ten important questions you must ask about before deciding whether music therapy is right for you.

1 . What is the History of Music Therapy?

The healing effects of music are cited in numerous texts throughout history, including the bible, the writings of Rumi, and Einstein. We know of the use of music both in secular and sacred settings. We can find references to music and healing eloquently expressed in many ancient texts such as Plato who wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.” However, the earliest medical citation of the use of music therapy appeared in 1789, in an article in Columbian Magazine titled “Music Physically” and the first recorded systematic experiments in music therapy occurred in the 1800’s.

” “I live my daydreams in music,
I see my life in terms of music.”
~Albert Einstein

2. Is There a Music Therapy Organization?

Several music therapy associations formed during the 1900’s, the first being the National Society of Musical Therapeutics, in 1903, followed by others such as the National Association for Music in Hospitals, the National Foundation of Music Therapy, the National Music Therapy Association, and the American Association for Music Therapy.  The National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT) and the American Association for Music Therapy (AATA) merged in 1998 to create the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), which is currently the largest music therapy association in the United States. It represents music therapists in over 30 countries in the United States and around the world.

3. Who is a Music Therapist?

Is there a difference between a sound therapist, a dance therapist, a musician, a music teacher, and a music therapist?

There are a number of different certified professionals working in the field of music. Is there a difference between a sound therapist, a dance therapist, a musician, a music teacher, and a music therapist? A music therapist shares qualities of all of the above. Most often these professionals work together, with the adjunctive arts therapies, however they may or may not share the same professional goals, purpose and intention. Registered Music Therapists, (RMT) Certified Music Therapists (CMT), and Board Certified music therapists (MT-BC) must complete years of studies, training, and certification.  A professional music therapist must have a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy from one of over 70 approved college and university programs from the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

These academic years of study are followed by an internship in music therapy at a certified facility. Past certification entitlements for music therapists were RMTs and CMTs, The current certification entitlement of music therapists is MT-BC, and is by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) created in 1983.

4. What Happens During a Music Therapy Session?

There are two basic types of music therapy sessions:  passive or receptive music therapy and active or expressive music therapy. Music therapy is a clinical and evidence-based use of music to accomplish specific physical, emotional, or social goals using music listening or performing.

Music therapy is a clinical and evidence-based use of music.

Music therapy can include:

  1. listening to music
  2. singing
  3. rapping
  4. playing musical instruments
  5. composing music
  6. lyric writing
  7. discussing lyrics
  8. tapping or patting out rhythm

5. Who Can Benefit From Music Therapy?

Music therapy can be beneficial to people of all ages, races and cultures, including

  1. infants
  2. children
  3. adolescents
  4. adults
  5. senior citizens

Music therapy has clinically demonstrated to be effective with those having physical, mental, emotional, social or developmental challenges.

It has clinically been shown to be effective with those having physical, mental, emotional, social or developmental challenges such as juvenile delinquents or prison inmates, diseases of the aging and elderly, those with developmental disabilities, attention deficit disorders, brain injuries and neurological disorders, depression, grief, and mental health challenges, substance abuse problems, physical disabilities, and acute or chronic physical pain. 

6. What Are the Fundamental Elements of Music?

Music consists of four fundamental elements. Each element has an influential effect on us.

The four elements of music are tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony and timbre. Each element has an influential effect on us.

  1. Tempo – The speed at which music is played or performed. Tempos are measured by beats per minute (BPM). Tempos range from larghissimo (the slowest tempo of about 19 BPM or less) or prestissimo (the fastest tempo of 178 BPM or more ) and many other tempo designations in between. Tempo changes can occur within the music with an accellerando (increase in tempo) or ritardando (descrease in tempo).
  2. Rhythm – The systematic arrangement and periodic stress of strong, regular, repeated sound patterns. Alternating note values and rests determine rhythm such as eighth, sixteenth, or quarter notes and rests.
  3. Melody – The sequential pattern of musical notes, arranged in a particular, and often repetitive, memorable, and pleasing manner.
  4. Harmony (or Disharmony/dissonance) – The simultaneous production of two or more combinations of musical notes to create chords (or intervals) resulting in pleasing or displeasing sounds.
  5. Timbre – The  unique characteristics of a distinct musical sound or voice, respectful of it’s particular instrument family (for example, the trumpet has a distinctive timbre in comparison to the drum or flute).

7. Why Does Music Affect Our Bodies?

Each of us is a rhythmic being. Music is innate to us. We have a heart beating inside of us and our lungs rise and fall, rhythmically with each breath. Scientific studies have shown our heart rate speeds up or slows down to match the pulse of the music. This is phenomenon is  called entrainment. 

Entrainment is the synchronization of organisms to an external perceived rhythm. Every human being experiences this.

As we listen to the music, and match the sound of the music, every unique musical element has a different psychological, sociological and physiological effect on our bodies. Entrainment is a biomusicological experience. It is the synchronization of organisms to an external perceived rhythm. It occurs exclusively in  human music and dance. Humans are the only species in which every member of its species experiences entrainment. Other living organisms (yet not ALL in one species) have been known to demonstrate the biomusicological entrainment, although it is rare within any other species.

8. How is Music Effective as Therapy?

Music will bring about physical, psychological, behavioral, and emotional changes such as

  1. increasing or decreasing blood flow
  2. raising or lowering the heart rate or pulse
  3. improving sleep
  4. stimulating one to do physical exercise, such as running or dancing
  5. reducing pain
  6. elevating the mood
  7. boosting motivation
  8. reducing stress
  9. inducing relaxed muscle tension
  10. decreasing abnormalities or impairments in the regulation of metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes
  11. stimulating every area of the brain
  12. improving cognitive skills
  13. developing motor skills
  14. increasing spatial-temporal learning
  15. increasing neurogenesis (the production of neurons in the brain).

9. Can Music Have a Negative Affect?

Research shows that listening to lyrics that involve guns, violence and descriptive acts of aggression can have a negative influence on our emotional and mental health.

Yes, studies have shown that listening to lyrics that involve guns, violence and descriptive acts of aggression can have a negative influence on our emotional and mental health. A study published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” (2003), showed that aggressive and violent lyrics increased aggressive thoughts and feelings in adolescents.

Music therapists sometimes choose lyrics to help evoke an emotional response. However, this decision must carefully align with each person’s unique, individualized goal. Music doesn’t necessarily need to have lyrics to evoke a negative response. Music without lyrics, but with a rapid tempo, can raise the heart rate or pulse, overly stimulating or exciting someone who needs to relax.  A hyperactive child, a person having a panic attack, or someone with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, shouldn’t be saturated with overly stimulating music, when the goal is to relax or calm the person.

Doctor and patient

10. How Do I Find a Music Therapist?

If you are interested in locating a music therapist you can discuss this with your trusted doctor or healthcare professional. It would be wise to ask a music therapist to show you their credentials and registrations, degrees, and certifications. You can check with the American Music Therapy Association to contact local or regional chapters. Music therapists can be discovered through online searches and sometimes music therapists conduct therapy sessions online (such as on TalkSpace). 


Jean E. Dart

Jean Dart, is a published author, speaker, and life coach, and has written hundreds of health articles as well as hosting a local television program, “Making Miracles Happen.” She is a Registered Music Therapist (RMT), Sound Therapist, and Master Level Energetic Teacher, and is the Executive Director, founder, and Health and Wellness Educator of the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance, a 501(c)3 health education nonprofit organization. To find out more about the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance visit www.montereybayholistic.com

Disclaimer: The Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance is a charitable, independent registered nonprofit 501 (c) 3 organization and does not endorse any particular products or practices. We exist as an educational organization dedicated to providing free access to health education resources, products, and services. Claims and statements herein are for informational purposes only and have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The statements about organizations, practitioners, methods of treatment, and products listed on this website are not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information is intended for educational purposes only. The MBHA strongly recommends that you seek out your trusted medical doctor or practitioner for diagnosis and treatment of any existing health condition.

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