what is music therapy

What is Music Therapy?

Music, a universally understood expression, has been used in healing practices for at least 2,500 years (Davis & Gfeller, 2008). Music has therapeutic characteristics because it combines rhythms and melodies that can touch almost every individual in a way that promotes change and growth (Gfeller, 2008). The modern practice of music therapy utilizes the natural human connection to music to promote mental and physical healing. Music therapy gained its first evidenced based recognition in western society after WWII, when it was noted to have positive effects on physically and mentally wounded soldiers (Rorke, 1996). In 1944, Michigan State offered the first formal course in music therapy. It has since been extensively researched and now includes several areas of specialty. Today, music therapy is an evidenced based and established health care profession used to benefit individuals with a wide variety of mental and physical ailments.

Music therapy uses music-based interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed therapist who has completed an approved music therapy program ("What is music therapy?"American Music Therapy Association). It is an allied health profession to occupational therapy or physical therapy. It consists of using music centered interventions to address non-musical goals for individuals of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. A music therapist works with clients and/or caregivers of clients to evaluate their strengths and needs. The information gathered is used to design and implement an individualized music-based treatment plan. Throughout the treatment period, the treatment plan is constantly re-evaluated to maximize the benefit to those being served. When the treatment goals are reached, a music therapist and client may decide to terminate the treatment or create a new set of goals based on individual needs.


American Music Therapy Association. (2005). What is music therapy? AMTA official definition of music therapy. American Music Therapy Association. https://www.musictherapy.org/about/musictherapy/.

Davis, W. B., & Gfeller, K. E. (2008). Music therapy: Historical perspective. In W. B. Davis, K. E. Gfeller, & M. H. Thaut (Eds.). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (3rd ed., pp. 17-39). American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Gfeller, K. E. (2008). Music: A human phenomenon and therapeutic tool. In W. B. Davis, K. E. Gfeller, & M. H. Thaut (Eds.). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (3rd ed., pp. 41-75). American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Rorke, M. A. (1996). Music and the wounded of World War II. Journal of Music Therapy33(3), 189–207.

A Brief History of Music Therapy

Many cultures, societies, and individuals believe music is part of a healthy human psyche. Melody, tone, and rhythm encapsulate the world through nature: including the sound of the wind, the rush of a river, the songs of a bird, etc. Humans even begin listening and responding to sound within their mother’s womb (Birnholz & Benacerraf, 1983; Hibiya-Motegi et al., 2020). Singing, music, and rhythm can be considered part of our primal instincts.

The evidence that music as therapy has been used to elevate one’s emotional state and wellbeing for over 2,500 years can be mainly traced back to ancient Greece and China (Guerrant, 1980). Many other civilizations across the world have also noted music’s ability to create alignment between body and soul (Davis & Gfeller, 2008). Shamans employed music and dance to induce a trance that chased away evil spirits and illnesses which plagued the body (Boyce-Tillman, 2000). Music was used by early Christian priests and physicians during the renaissance period to initiate emotional and physiological improvements. Native Americans have used tribal music and dance in healing practices for centuries (Peterson Family Foundation, 2016). An essential aspect in creating effective change included reaching a higher state of conscious and awareness and music provided an ideal medium for this transition.

When the renaissance period initiated an increase in the areas of science, music as therapy and other spiritual healing practices were disregarded and considered unempirical. Music used for healing was unrecognized by the scientific community for many years. Music therapy made a significant resurgence because of the world wars. Musicians were brought into hospitals to play for soldiers who sustained a significant amount of physical and emotional damage. Doctors observed the patients’ significant positive response and rapid increase in healing when music was used to treat the physically and psychologically wounded soldiers (“History of music therapy”American Music Therapy Association,). The scientific study of music as therapy started to build ground in the field of research.

Although the earliest written modern reference to the term “music therapy” was mentioned in 1879, the official title was not recognized until 1944 when Michigan State University started the first formal course on the subject. Music therapy finally received its start as a legitimate and scientific form of healthcare. Since that time, music therapy has been and continues to be vigorously studied for the treatment of countless physical and mental disorders.


American Music Therapy Association. (n.d.). History of music therapy. American Music Therapy Association. https://www.musictherapy.org/about/history/.

Birnholz, J.C., & Benacerraf, B. R. (1983). The development of human fetal hearing. Science222(4623), 516–518.

Boyce-Tillman, J. (2000). Constructing musical healing: The wounds that heal, Jessica Kingsley.

Davis, W. B., & Gfeller, K. E. (2008). Music therapy: Historical perspective. In W. B. Davis, K. E. Gfeller, & M. H. Thaut (Eds.). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (3rd ed., pp. 17-39). American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Guerrant, M. (1980). Three aspects of music in ancient China and Greece. College Music Symposium, 20(2), 87-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40374081

Hibiya-Motegi, R., Nakayama, M., Matsuoka, R., Takeda, J., Nojiri, S., Itakura, A., Koike, T., & Ikeda, K. (2020). Use of sound-elicited fetal heart rate accelerations to assess fetal hearing in the second and third trimester. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology133, 110001. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijporl.2020.110001

Peterson Family Foundation. (2016, July 18). The history of music therapy. Peterson Family Foundation. https://petersonfamilyfoundation.org/news/the-history-of-music-therapy/.

Populations Served by Music Therapy Today

Music therapy effectively supports treatments of a wide variety of physical, developmental, and emotional complications (Davis et al., 2008). From promoting infant development (Nakhwa et al., 2017) to stabilizing the elderly in need of support (Clair & Davis, 2008), music therapy proves an effective form of care across a lifetime of needs. The research surrounding music therapy continues to grow and many benefits are still yet to be discovered. Listed below are some of the documented benefits of music therapy:

  • Music therapy can help regulate the heart rate and promote feeding in premature infants (Van der Heijden, 2016).

  • Music therapy has promoted cognitive, social, and neurological development in disorders such as ADHD, Autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Dementia, and Schizophrenia (Gaviola et al., 2020; Gfeller & Thaut, 2008; Guetin et al., 2013; Mayer-Benarous et al., 2021).

  • Music therapy can promote physical strength development for degenerative diseases such as Cerebral Palsy (Efraimidou et al., 2016; Ma et al., 2019).

  • Music therapy can encourage a relaxing and meditative environment to decrease anxiety and stress (Archambault et al., 2019; Crawford et al., 2013; Kavak et al., 2016; Içel & Basogul, 2021; Mandel et al., 2019; Saarikallio et al., 2017).

  • Music therapy aids emotional expression by using rhythm, melody, and lyrics to bypass filters of thought. This can benefit a wide variety of individuals with mental health disorders including but not limited to depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, etc. (Beck et al., 2018; Bibb et al., 2019; Gfeller & Thaut, 2008).

  • Music therapy can provide stabilization for emotional, physical, and cognitive care for stroke victims and those who suffer from a traumatic brain injury (Thaut et al., 2008).

  • Music therapy has been shown to aid in pain relief which can decrease the need for large amounts of pain medication (Cepeda et al., 2006; Mandel et al., 2019; Lin et al., 2020).

Visit musictherapy.org to learn more about the researched benefits of music therapy.


Archambault, K., Vaugon, K., Deumié, V., Brault, M., Perez, R. M., Peyrin, J., Vaillancourt, G., & Garel, P. (2019). MAP: A personalized receptive music therapy intervention to improve the affective well-being of youths hospitalized in a mental health unit. Journal of Music Therapy56(4), 381–402. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thz013

Beck, B. D., Lund, S. T., Søgaard, U., Simonsen, E., Tellier, T. C., Cordtz, T. O., Laier, G. H., & Moe, T. (2018). Music therapy versus treatment as usual for refugees diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials19(1), 301. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-018-2662-z

Bibb, J., Castle, D., & Skewes McFerran, K. (2019). Reducing anxiety through music therapy at an outpatient eating disorder recovery service. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health14(3), 306–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/15401383.2019.1595804

Cepeda, M. S., Carr, D. B., Lau, J., & Alvarez, H. (2006). Music for pain relief. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews2, CD004843. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004843.pub2

Clair, A. A., & Davis, W. B. (2008). Music therapy and elderly populations. In W. B. Davis, K. E. Gfeller, & M. H. Thaut (Eds.). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (3rd ed., pp. 181-207). American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Crawford, I., Hogan, T., & Silverman, M. J. (2013). Effects of music therapy on perception of stress, relaxation, mood, and side effects in patients on a solid organ transplant unit: A randomized effectiveness study. The Arts in Psychotherapy40(2), 224–229. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2013.02.005

Davis, W. B., Gfeller, K. E., & Thaut, M. (2008). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Efraimidou, V., Sidiropoulou, M., Giagazoglou, P., Proios, M., Tsimaras, V., & Orologas, A. (2016). The effects of a music and movement program on gait, balance and psychological parametres of adults with cerebral palsy. International Journal of Special Education31(2), 238–249.

Gaviola, M. A., Inder, K. J., Dilworth, S., Holliday, E. G., & Higgins, I. (2020). Impact of individualised music listening intervention on persons with dementia: A systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Australasian Journal on Ageing39(1), 10–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajag.12642

Gfeller, K. E., & Thaut, M. H. (2008). Music therapy in the treatment of behavioral-emotional disorders. In W. B. Davis, K. E. Gfeller, & M. H. Thaut (Eds.). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (3rd ed., pp. 209-246). American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Guetin, S., Charras, K., Berard, A., Arbus, C., Berthelon, P., Blanc, F., Blayac, J.-P., Bonte, F., Bouceffa, J.-P., Clement, S., Ducourneau, G., Gzil, F., Laeng, N., Lecourt, E., Ledoux, S., Platel, H., Thomas-Anterion, C., Touchon, J., Vrait, F.-X., & Leger, J.-M. (2013). An overview of the use of music therapy in the context of Alzheimer’s disease: A report of a French expert group. Dementia: The International Journal of Social Research and Practice12(5), 619–634. https://doi.org/10.1177/1471301212438290

Içel, S., & Basogul, C. (2021). Effects of progressive muscle relaxation training with music therapy on sleep and anger of patients at community mental health center. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2021.101338

Kavak, F., Ünal, S., & Yılmaz, E. (2016). Effects of relaxation exercises and music therapy on the psychological symptoms and depression levels of patients with schizophrenia. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing30(5), 508–512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2016.05.003

Lin, C., Hwang, S., Jiang, P., & Hsiung, N. (2020). Effect of music therapy on pain after orthopedic surgery—A systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain Practice20(4), 422–436. https://doi.org/10.1111/papr.12864

Ma, Y., Zhang, L., Cui, Q., Jin, X., & Zhang, G. (2019). The effect of music therapy on rehabilitation of children with cerebral palsy: A meta-analysis. TMR Integrative Medicine3(14), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.12032/TMRIM201903014

Mandel, S. E., Davis, B. A., & Secic, M. (2019). Patient satisfaction and benefits of music therapy services to manage stress and pain in the hospital emergency department. Journal of Music Therapy56(2), 149–173. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thz001

Mayer-Benarous, H., Benarous, X., Vonthron, F., & Cohen, D. (2021). Music therapy for children with autistic spectrum disorder and/or other neurodevelopmental disorders: A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 435. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.643234

Nakhwa, P. K., Malawade, M., Shrikhande, D. Y., Shrikhande, S., & Rokade, P. (2017). Efficacy of music therapy in improvement of neuromotor development in preterm infants. Romanian Journal of Physical Therapy / Revista Romana de Kinetoterapie, 23(40), 5–11.

Saarikallio, S., Baltazar, M., & Västfjäll, D. (2017). Adolescents’ musical relaxation: Understanding related affective processing. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy26(4), 376–389. https://doi.org/10.1080/08098131.2016.1276097

Thaut, M. H., Thaut, C., & LaGasse, B. (2008). Music therapy in neurologic rehabilitation. In W. B. Davis, K. E. Gfeller, & M. H. Thaut (Eds.). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (3rd ed., pp. 261-304). American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Van der Heijden, M. J. E., Oliai Araghi, S., Jeekel, J., Reiss, I. K. M., Hunink, M. G. M., & Van Dijk, M. (2016). Do hospitalized premature infants benefit from music interventions? A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. PLoS ONE11(9), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161848

Ideal Candidates of Online Music Therapy

  • Those who live alone and/or when traveling is a challenge

  • Individuals seeking rehabilitation support for lack of mobility

  • People who are more comfortable receiving therapy in their own home

  • Individuals who would like to receive therapy outside the normal working hours

  • Individuals who would like to learn more about how music therapy can benefit them and their situation without traveling

  • People who are looking for holistic care regarding mental or medical ailments

  • Those who enjoy music and would like to find ways to use it to promote a healthy lifestyle

Contraindicated Candidates of Online Music Therapy

  • Individuals who are hard of hearing

  • Individuals who do not understand how to utilize the technology required and are not able to access the help to set it up

  • Individuals who would not be able to sit at a screen for 45-50 minutes

  • Individuals who lack the ability to communicate effectively and do not have a caregiver that could provide the communication necessary to create a treatment plan

  • Individuals in need of in-person music therapy