Learn / Music Therapy: Why Are Therapists Singing Its Praises?

Music Therapy: Why Are Therapists Singing Its Praises?

Hannah Friedman
 September 13th, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Music can be more than just a fun hobby—it can actually be therapeutic. Many people enjoy playing or listening to music for its mood-boosting qualities, and music therapy takes this a step further. This type of therapy uses music as a tool during recovery. Music can help alleviate the symptoms of many mental health issues, and even addiction.

If you love listening to music or playing instruments, you may want to consider attending a rehab center with music therapy. This treatment is more than just listening to music. Music therapists have to complete a certification program in order to work with clients. Then, they’ll use the psychology and music concepts that they’ve learned to meet the needs of the client during sessions.

Music as a Catalyst for Change

Music therapy is an alternative therapy method1 that can help you heal from a variety of mental health issues, including drug addiction. Similar to sound healing, music therapy uses the properties of sound during sessions. With both modalities, the idea is that these sounds will help you through your recovery process. According to researchers, music therapy is the “the clinical and evidence-informed use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship in order to achieve physical, emotional, mental, social and cognitive needs.”

Recovery Unplugged Nashville is a rehab center with a strong focus on music-assisted treatment.2 In fact, this program integrates music into every part of recovery. Clients get personalized recovery playlists, and access to their own private music studios. They can also enjoy live performances from alumni and other artists in recovery.

“Music can be a catalyst for real change,” says Richie Supa, the Director of Creative Recovery at Recovery Unplugged. “When they hear it through a song, it’s non-threatening, and there’s a certain connectivity that happens. That’s the magic of what music does.”

The Sound of Music: What Happens in a Therapy Session

During your session, a trained music therapist will utilize “musical components,”1 like pitch, melody, and harmony to focus on various therapeutic goals. These can include better communication, expression, or any other areas you’re working on.. The therapist will also use music to help access the client’s feelings and memories, discuss social situations, or impact behavior.

“We use music to be able to open up a conversation,” says Marissa Duane, the Group Facilitator at Recovery Unplugged. “Or to deepen what we’re talking about in a specific topic.”

You don’t have to be a musical genius to benefit from music therapy. You just need to be willing to try something new. Your therapist will guide you the rest of the way, depending on the technique that they choose.

Most music therapists use 1 of 2 methods to help you accomplish your goals.

Active Music Therapy

In this form of music therapy,3 the client actively makes music. You might play a musical instrument, sing, improvise, or write music or lyrics. Musical improvisation is the most popular type of music therapy.1 During the session, the client and therapist will improvise together, either playing freely or following a specific structure.

The music therapist may use a mirroring technique to better understand the client’s needs. This is known as “patient-therapist attunement.” During this exercise, the therapist matches their music to the client’s, until they’re almost playing in unison. Then, the therapist can use the “Iso Principle” to shift the client’s mood. With this technique, the therapist gradually changes the tone of what you’re playing together. The goal here is to change the mood,  and eventually elicit a new emotion. For example, slow and steady music can lower your heart rate, and help you calm down. So if the music therapist wants to decrease the client’s stress, they may start to play more slowly and quietly. Ideally, the client naturally follows their lead, and reaps the benefits of that change in tempo.

Receptive Music Therapy

During receptive music therapy,3 the client “receives,” or listens to, music. The therapist may guide the client through music-assisted relaxation, guided imagery and music, or lyric analysis. The client may talk about their feelings or experiences while listening to the music.

Many music therapists use The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music.4 The client and therapist first talk about any issues the client is dealing with, which determines the focus for the session. Then, the client closes their eyes, shifts to a relaxed position, and listens to music that the therapist chose. The client tells the therapist about any thoughts, feelings, and images that arise while the music is playing. The goal is for music to put the client into an “altered state of consciousness.” In that relaxed state, clients will be able to access their deeper thoughts and feelings more easily. Afterward, they’ll talk with their therapist about their experience.

For example, one woman decided to participate in guided imagery and music when she was feeling anxiety surrounding the birth of her son. During the session, she felt as though her late grandmother, whom she had been very close to, was telling her that everything would be alright.

“I feel some lightness in the body and at the same time feel spiritually connected to my grandmother,” she said about the therapy process. “Suddenly it feels like my heart is opening towards the music.” She went on to describe the experience as “relieving” and “peaceful” and even mentioned feeling moved to tears.

Music Therapy’s Mental Health Benefits

Music therapy also has the potential to help people with their mental health. Music is a creative discipline, and research shows that creativity is good for your overall well-being.5 And as the rehab center Little Creek Recovery puts it, “Sober doesn’t mean you have to stop being creative.” At Little Creek Recovery, clients can experiment with their creativity in their in-house music studio.6 Clients can play for fun as long as they’d like. If they decide they want to record one of their pieces, a sound engineer will guide the client through the recording process. Your music may even be put on the CD that the center releases each year, which can provide a sense of accomplishment. 

Research shows that creative activities can help reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. This includes music therapy. And according to Little Creek Recovery, music can help people find their own identity through self-expression. This can help improve mental health, since “playing, singing, writing, and/or creating music can build a person’s self-confidence and sense of purpose.”

Effects on Depression

Music therapy reduces depression.3 Although some methods work better than others, that doesn’t mean they’re not effective. For example, some studies show that recreative music therapy and guided imagery and music are the best ways to combat depression. During recreative music therapy, the client plays or sings to a familiar or new song.

The length of treatment is important too. For example, researchers saw a greater reduction in depressive symptoms in patients that went to music therapy from 1 to 13 sessions. And the amount of time in the session matters—lessons that were over 60 minutes were also more effective in lessening depressive symptoms.

Effects on Anxiety

Many people listen to music to relax—in fact, just listening to music reduces anxiety.7 And studies show that music therapy significantly decreases anxiety.8 However, whether or not this is a lasting effect is still under debate.

Effects on Stress

Music therapy also has a positive effect on stress.1 Listening to music minimizes cortisol levels (the hormone that causes stress), decreases heart rate, and reduces pressure in arteries—all physical effects related to stress. Music can also help improve overall emotional state because it reduces negative feelings (like nervousness) and increases positive ones (like happiness).

It can bring people closer together when playing or listening in a group, which also contributes to lower stress levels. And, it can help distract people from stressful thoughts and emotions.

How Music Therapy Soothes the Symptoms of Addiction

Music therapy can treat clients with substance use disorders.9 Studies show that people who participate in music therapy experience fewer drug cravings, especially when the program lasts at least 1-3 months. And it may not even matter which kind of music therapy clients undergo. According to one study, clients benefitted from motivational-educational songwriting and recreative music therapy equally.10 Both activities positively affected drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

But music therapy doesn’t just reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms; it can play a role in other areas of life too. In clients with addiction, music therapy can also improve11 the following:

  • confidence
  • motivation
  • socialization
  • communication
  • emotional expression
  • relaxation
  • emotional healing

These positive effects may have to do with the way that music affects the brain. For example, music and illicit drugs influence similar aspects of brain function.12 Both music and substance use increase dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure. The release of this chemical can help people heal, since studies show that happiness may support recovery,13 both during and after rehab.

Michael didn’t realize how therapeutic music was for him14 until he went through treatment for substance misuse at Recovery Unplugged. Here’s how he describes his experience: 

“I knew there was something that I needed to do in order to express my creativity and play music, but it didn’t really open up until I went through RU and realized that music was my outlet. I can sit down and play or listen to music and change my mood instantly. I had never used music as a tool in recovery before, now I do every day.”

The Soundtrack to Your Recovery Journey

Music therapy could just be the treatment method that kick-starts your recovery journey. While music therapy alone isn’t meant to replace traditional talk therapy, it can certainly be a powerful and inspiring part of your treatment plan. 

View our list of luxury rehab programs that offer music therapy to read reviews, take virtual tours, and see how the arts can support your recovery journey.

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