Music therapy and it's therapeutic benefits

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are all kinds of things that people do to manage stress. Some of them are healthier than others. In this article, you will learn about stress, music, and how music therapy with a licensed therapist may help you manage stress and various mental health conditions.

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It is not by accident that people enjoy listening to music when they're getting a massage, nor should it be surprising when you see elite athletes with a pair of earbuds in when they are getting limbered up for a big game. People feel deep responses to their own musical preferences. It seems to be intrinsic to our very nature. Calm music is ideal for stress reduction, while upbeat music is great for cleaning the house or doing some other sort of chore. Heavy metal can get you fired up, while reggae can mellow you out and put a smile on your face. But have you ever thought about creating music in a therapeutic context? 

Most people have noticed how much of an impact music has on them, and they use it accordingly. Music therapy may have a profound impact on mood, perspective, and motivation. Music therapy can also be linked to physiological responses such as, but not limited to, a reduction in muscle tension, a decrease in heart rate, and more. The physiological response from your body will vary depending on the sounds you listen to and your individual preferences. The power of music can be tapped into in many different ways, including through music therapy services. Online therapy is a great place to start if you are interested in exploring how music therapy supports you in accomplishing your mental health goals. 

The American Music Therapy Association shows that an approved music therapy program can support people in their physical rehabilitation efforts, such as by improving their physical health, reducing their blood pressure, healing from brain injuries, or simply providing them with chronic pain management. However, there's also evidence that creative music therapy can be beneficial for treating mental health disorders, neurological disorders, and more conditions. The use of music as a method of sound healing has shown to be extremely effective. 

What is music therapy?

What is music therapy? Nordoff Robbins music therapy first rose to prominence following World War I and II. The history of music therapy begins with a theory that was put forth by therapists that music could calm people down or make them feel happier.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is an “established health profession in which music is used in a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.”

An approved music therapy program is supposed to work based on five separate factors, as defined by the American Music Therapy Association, to maximize effectiveness.

The first of those is the modulation of attention.

Modulation of attention

The modulation of attention is generally one of the five factors defined by the American Music Therapy Association to maximize the effectiveness of music therapy. This refers to music grabbing the attention of people who are listening to it. It can distract from stimuli that can lead to negative thoughts and feelings. Physical pain, worry, and anxiety can all lessen when you listen to music that grabs your attention. Sound frequencies that are pleasant can help to reduce stress in young adults with anxiety disorders by helping them exist in the present moment. Guided imagery can also be used in conjunction with this music therapy technique, according to the American Music Therapy Association. 

Modulation of communication

As it turns out, the American Music Therapy Association believes that music can also help improve communication skills. Musical improvisation, when being employed by musicians, can lead them to refine their techniques with their musical instruments. They get better by playing off of each other. People who are non-verbal or who struggle with communication, like those with late-stage Alzheimer's disease, can also use music to communicate and create coping skills.

Modulation of behavior

Modulation of behavior may be the third factor noted by the American Music Therapy Association. The way that our behavior is modulated by music is something that we touched on before. Most people have noticed how soothing music can calm them down and help them regain control if they are upset, angry, or frustrated. Music evokes feelings in us, and the right sort of music can be used to bring about a desired mood. In sound therapy with a board-certified music therapist, the therapeutic relationship between listening to classical music and reduced blood pressure is just one example of how music therapists work with their clients to bring about certain moods via analytical music therapy.

Modulation of cognition

As the American Music Therapy Association states, our cognitive abilities are also affected by music. For example, research suggests that premature infants have been shown to have improved cognitive capabilities after participating in support music therapy. Just as the smell of your mom's biscuits might bring back pleasant images of your childhood, a particular song might bring back fond memories, and music therapy generally operates on the same basis. Music can be directly related to memory processes. If you're trying to remember an incident that happened when you were young, you might wish to try putting on some music that you would have listened to at that time. The songs may jog your memory.

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Modulation of emotion

This is another aspect of music that you have probably already noticed, as defined by the American Music Therapy Association. When you are sitting in church, and you hear the choir singing songs about salvation, the heavenly voices rising together may help you capture the spiritual feelings that you are trying to attain. A song that was playing on your wedding day might cause you to choke up when you think about how happy you were on that occasion.

Mental healthcare professionals, like music therapists, may employ this technique in a music therapy session to help their clients accomplish individualized goals, like having stronger coping skills when faced with an emotional situation. When therapy, music, and the empathy of a therapist combine, you may find that the effects can be significant.

How does music therapy work on the brain and your mental health?

According to modern research, music therapy may support the development of cognitive skills, social skills, motor skills, and communication abilities in autistic children or children with other developmental disabilities. Not only this, but music interventions in therapy are becoming increasingly effective forms of treatment for various psychological disorders by improving overall health and confidence. 

The two fundamental methods of music therapy

As for music and how it can be used to reduce your feelings of stress, there are two possible ways for how this sort of therapy might be employed. They are receptive music therapy interventions and active music therapy interventions. With the receptive variety, you are listening to music to help calm you down, get through traumas, etc. With active music therapy, you may learn to play an instrument, create music yourself, write songs, or do something else related to music that is of a more active nature. 

On the whole, music interventions that support a lower stress level are good for both your physical health and emotional health. 

The benefits of the receptive method

The receptive method may help with some cognitive disorders and feelings of stress or anxiety. Rather than talking about your problems, or in addition to talking about them, you'll listen to music during part of your therapy sessions so that you can get in a more relaxed state of mind before going back out to face the world again. It is possible that after listening to music and undergoing music therapy, then you will be more willing to talk about painful instances from your childhood. You might even have memories return to you that you were suppressing. Music can bring them out into the open so that you can deal with them to then accomplish individualized goals regarding your mental wellness.

To find out more about these two methods, visit the American Music Therapy Association website

The benefits of the active method

The active method of music therapy services can help you deal with emotions and things of that nature, but it can also hone your cognitive abilities. When you are learning to play instruments or making music, your brain is active. It isn't easy to learn this new skill, and you have to focus and pay attention. This can be helpful as it might help remove focus from anxious feelings and help improve your reflexes and sense of timing. Music therapy can also be incorporated into education. When performed in educational settings, this alternative medicine can help you improve your ability to learn and overall cognitive skills. This is just one of the many benefits of music therapy, according to the American Music Therapy Association.

If you are taking part in this second method, then your therapist might have you doing things like drumming, singing along to familiar songs, writing song lyrics, composing music, or writing choreography to go along with the music. Even if you didn't know anything about music beforehand, getting outside of your comfort zone and tackling this challenging new world can get you away from a negative headspace.

Finding music therapists

If you are interested in music therapy as a way of reducing your stress and improving your well-being, you'll need to find a music therapist. You might ask your doctor if they have any recommendations for good music therapists in your area. You can also use the American Music Therapy Association website to search for a certified music therapist. 

The American Music Therapy Association

A music therapist typically has a music background and the desire to use that knowledge to address mental health needs. To become a qualified music therapist, individuals should hold at least a bachelor’s degree in music therapy, which involves coursework, clinical training, and a supervised internship. They also need to obtain certification from the appropriate organization.

The American Music Therapy Association is a nonprofit organization that supports training, professional standards, and music therapy research. Certified music therapists typically belong to the association.

In addition, qualified professionals should have the credential Music Therapist- Board Certified. The MT-BC is granted by the Certification Board for Music Therapists, and establishes a national standard for all music therapists. The Certification Board for Music Therapists is the only certifying board for music therapists. 

What is the job of the music therapist?

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A music therapist will first assess what it is that's going on with you. The music therapist will want to know all about your life and what is causing your stressful feelings. This part of the music therapy for stress treatment will resemble conventional therapy, including potential focuses on improving mood and increasing self-awareness. If you have additional concerns outside of stress, such as depression, low self-esteem, or substance abuse, additional clinical treatment methods may be incorporated into your sessions.

The next aspect of it will involve figuring out what kind of music you like and what your capabilities might be if you plan on learning instruments or actively participating in what is happening in a musical group setting. You might see music therapists working in a one-on-one capacity out of the office, but some of them regularly go to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, mental health facilities, or other group settings.

The music therapist must accurately assess what is happening with each of their patients or clients. They will ask you lots of questions and devise a treatment plan that is uniquely suited for you. The more they learn about you, and the more you're able to reveal comfortably, the better they will be able to help you improve your emotional well-being through music therapy, music interventions, and other strategies related to sound.

If you do pursue a method of music therapy for your stress or anxiety, then you and your therapist will probably work together to come up with some specific stress management goals or objectives. For example, if you feel anxious in a particular situation, then the goal of your music therapy sessions might be for you to face that situation and no longer feel frightened or unable to cope. Music therapy can be a great way for people of any age to increase relaxation, develop healthy coping skills, feel reduced pain, and find an outlet for self-expression.


The therapeutic possibilities of music-based interventions are many, according to the American Music Therapy Association, but learning more about them and how they may help you specifically involves reaching out and discussing what you're experiencing. 

If you want to talk about your stress level and whether support music therapy might be right for you, then you can speak to one of our licensed mental health counselors at BetterHelp. You can be quickly matched to a therapist and meet with them on a flexible schedule from the comfort of your own home. 

Research has found that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy for a wide range of conditions and is more available to those with travel or income limitations due to the convenience of in-home therapy sessions. 

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