How Music Therapy Works — Nine Revealing Q & A’s

Joseph R. Anticaglia, MD
Medical Advisory Board

Music can be a powerful tonic or a painful memory and many things in between. It surrounds us at home, in the car, and even in the elevator. It’s ubiquitous. Governments unify a nation with their anthems. The military arouses its army with their patriotic melodies. Religions use it as part of their rituals. Families observe togetherness with music; for example, at birthdays, weddings and funerals. And music therapists use it to promote your health and well-being. How did the therapeutic use of music start? And what is it? What follows are questions and answers about music therapy.

1) What is music therapy?

Music therapy uses music, administered by a qualified music therapist, to address the mental, physical and social needs of individuals of all ages. It stimulates the emotional parts of our brain. It’s not entertainment. It’s goal oriented to solve a person’s particular problem. Music therapists worked with former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to regain her speech after she survived a bullet wound to her brain in January of 2011.

Music therapists assess a person’s medical and social history to create a tailor-made program to best manage the individual’s needs. The therapist may ask you to listen to music, sing, play an instrument, help you compose a song, or ask you to talk about what the lyrics mean to you.

2) What are the types of music therapy?

Receptive Music Therapy: Involves listening to music to achieve therapeutic goals, such as relaxation or emotional expression.

Active Music Therapy: Requires active participation in music-making, like singing, playing instruments, or composing.

Guided Imagery and Music (GIM): In GIM, individuals explore their emotions and memories while listening to specially selected music.

3) What qualifications are needed to become a music therapist?

To become a music therapist, one typically needs a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy from an accredited program. Certification as a music therapist is often required, which involves passing a certification exam conducted by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) in the United States.

Music therapy Credit kzenon; Getty Images/iStockphoto

4) Beneficial Uses of Music Therapy

a) Emotional and Psychological Well-being: Music therapy is often used to manage stress, reduce anxiety, and alleviate symptoms of depression. It can provide a safe and creative outlet for emotional expression.

b) Physical Rehabilitation: Music therapy can help individuals recover from physical injuries or surgeries. Rhythmic music can be used to improve motor skills and coordination.

c) Cognitive Development: It can improve memory recall and awareness ability in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries.

d) Speech and Communication: Music therapy, using singing and rhythmic exercises, can improve speech clarity and social communication skills by helping to repair the speech areas of the brain, for instance, after a stroke.

e) Pain Management: Music can distract people from pain and discomfort, making it a valuable tool in pain management, especially in clinical settings.

f) Social Interaction: Group music therapy sessions can enhance social skills and promote a sense of community, making it beneficial for children with autism and individuals with social anxiety.

5) What evidence-based studies support the effectiveness of music therapy?

Studies support the effectiveness of music therapy in various clinical settings. Research supports its benefits in reducing anxiety, enhancing mood, improving cognitive function, and aiding physical rehabilitation. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) maintains a database of research and evidence-based practices in music therapy.

6) What age groups benefit from music therapy?

Music therapy can benefit individuals of all ages, from infants to the elderly. It is used in neonatal care, pediatric care, schools, mental health facilities, and nursing homes.

7) Can music therapy be used in conjunction with other therapies or treatments?

Music therapy can complement other therapies and treatments, and it is often integrated into a person’s treatment plans.

8) How did music therapy start?

Music and prayer rituals accompanied the sick and dead from ancient times. Egyptian records (1500BCE) showed that they used incantations to heal the sick. Greek philosophers commented on how music and poetry influenced a person’s mood (350 BCE). Chinese and Indian cultures have used music, song and prayer rituals in attempts to cure the sick. Native American tribes used music, dances and chants in their healing ceremonies.

Edwin Atlee wrote in 1804, how “The Medical Uses of Music” can promote physical and mental well-being. Everett Thayer Gaston, a psychologist active in the 1940s—1960s at the University of Kansas, was instrumental in developing music therapy. He described the qualities of musical expression that could be therapeutic, such as singing, dancing and writing music. He is considered the ‘Father of Music Therapy’ in the United States.

9) What do music therapists do?

Music therapists are credentialed healthcare professionals who plan your sessions with personal goals in mind. The therapist aims to reduce stress and anxiety, enhance mood, and improve patient’s communication skills. They work with hospitalized cardiac patients; for instance, to reduce pain, with Parkinson’s disease individuals to improve motor function and with young and old to reduce asthma episodes. This is different from therapeutic music in which a person listens to relaxing or uplifting music.

Music therapists are healthcare professionals trained to address a variety of conditions to improve the health of individuals. There work has proved to be beneficial in different situations.


  1. Allison Dempsey; History and Applications of Music Therapy. Connecting Thru Music
  2. American Music Therapy Association; What Music Therapy Is and Is Not
  3. Jin Hyung Lee; The Effects of Music on Pain: A Meta-Analysis; J Music Ther. 2021 Aug 24;
  4. American Music Therapy Association; Autism Spectrum Disorder
  5. Malak Biebiel et al; The effect of music therapy on cognitive functions in patients with Alzheimer’s disease; Alsheimer’s Research & Therapy, March 27, 2023
  6. Megha Shard et al; Music improves Social communication and auditory-motor connectivity in children with autism; Translational Psychiatry, October 23, 2018
  7. Joke Bradt et al; Music for stress and anxiety reduction in coronary heart disease patients; Cochrane Library, December 28, 2013
  8. Sarah Chapman; Music therapy: What’s the evidence? Cochrane Library, August 25, 2022
  9. Music Therapy; Cleveland Clinic; July 17, 2023
  10. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; Music and Health: What You Need To Know; September 2022


The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) is an organization committed to increasing the public’s awareness of the benefits of music therapy through education, training and evidence-based research.

This article is intended solely as a learning experience. Please consult your physician for diagnostic and treatment options.