Music therapy

Written by Kate Norris
Kate Norris
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 14th February 2024 | Next update due 13th February 2027

Music is one of the few things in life that has the power to move us emotionally. A piece of music can bring back memories, lift our spirits and soothe our souls - helping us to express emotions when words fail us. It is this power that music therapy harnesses, using the various musical components to provide a way of connecting within a therapeutic relationship.

The idea behind music therapy is to tap into that shared experience in a way that relates to you. Music therapy can benefit a wide range of people, including those experiencing emotional difficulties and those with physical limitations. Young children can benefit from improved communication, and older people can regain their self-esteem. On this page, we explore the growing area of music therapy, including how it can support healing, its history and the techniques used.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is a type of creative therapy that involves listening to and/or playing music. Depending on the needs of the participant, music therapy can foster self-awareness, communication skills and self-esteem. The therapy utilises the social and communicative nature of music to do this and aims to facilitate positive changes in behaviour.

Usually, the music therapist will conduct sessions using a range of instruments and/or their voice to provoke interaction and response from the participants. This kind of relaxed and safe environment helps to encourage learning and emotional release from those taking part.

Do I need musical experience?

You will not need any previous musical experience and you do not need to know how to play an instrument to join in. If the therapist encourages involvement, they may provide simple instruments like drums or tambourines, or indeed you can simply sit back and enjoy listening to the music.

It is also worth noting that music therapy does not aim to teach you how to play an instrument and should not be a substitute for music lessons. That being said, you may find that you naturally pick up rhythmic control and develop sensitivity to pitch by attending music therapy.

What happens in a music therapy session?

A music therapist may work with one person individually, or with a group of people together. The therapy itself can take place in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools, prisons, care homes and private workspaces depending on the requirements of those taking part. Every therapist will have a different way of working and the session structure will largely depend on the nature of the issues being explored.

Your music therapist may encourage you to take part by singing or playing an instrument, and you may be asked how the music being played makes you feel. Sometimes other sensory props (for example feathers) may be introduced; this can be especially true when dealing with children or those with disabilities. Some music therapists may ask you to make up a piece of music or write a song.

History of music therapy

The use of music as therapy has been taking place for centuries, with Ancient Greece leading the way. Apollo, for example, is the Greek God of music and medicine – proving that the two have been linked since at least the Ancient Greek era. Music therapy was even practised in biblical times when it was thought that David played the harp to rid King Saul of an evil spirit.

Music therapy as we know it today began in the wake of World Wars I and II. It was then that musicians (particularly in the UK) would travel to hospitals to play music for soldiers experiencing emotional and physical trauma. French cellist Juliette Alvin pioneered clinical music therapy in Britain in the 60s and is still considered the therapy's strongest influencer.

Today music therapy is one of the country's leading creative therapies and is supported by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Music therapy techniques

Music therapists will use a variety of techniques depending on the needs of the people taking part. The following techniques are some of those most commonly used, however, this list is not exhaustive and other techniques can be applied:

  • Singing – Your music therapist may invite you to sing along while they play a song. Singing can help to develop articulation and breath control, and within a group setting it can help to improve social skills.
  • Playing instruments – Playing an instrument can help you refine motor skills and coordination. Playing along with others also enhances cooperation and teamwork abilities.
  • Rhythmic-based activities – Imitating a rhythm, or making up your own, can help to develop coordination and range of movement. In some cases, it can also help to ease anxiety and aid relaxation.
  • Improvisation – Allowing you to express yourself creatively, musical improvisation can help when words fail you.
  • Composing/songwriting – Writing a song about your experiences can be easier than talking about it. Composing music can also help to foster a greater sense of self-awareness, helping you to understand your feelings better.
  • Listening – Just listening to music can have therapeutic properties. It can help to develop cognitive skills and encourage memory and attention.

Who can music therapy help?

Thanks to the versatile nature of music therapy it has the potential to help a range of different social groups. Almost everyone can benefit from music as therapy, however, it is thought to be particularly beneficial for the following:

Children and families 

It is thought that children first experience music when they are still in the womb, leading music and sound to be key communicators for young children. This means music therapy can be experienced by very young babies. When dealing with children and young babies, the use of fabric and sensory props is often encouraged to draw attention and develop cognitive skills.

Music therapy for children aims to help them explore and express thoughts and feelings while developing communication and linguistic skills. The therapy can also help to increase self-awareness and develop self-esteem. Listening and taking part in rhythmic-based activities is thought to support coordination while encouraging creative play.

While this type of therapy is aimed more so towards children, sessions can help to cement bonds between parent and child. This can be especially important for those suffering from postnatal depression.

Those with learning difficulties 

When music is used in therapy for those with learning difficulties, it is the communicative element that is most often applied. Self-expression and interaction are actively encouraged to help empower and motivate participants. Melodies encourage and prompt physical movement, helping to refine and develop coordination.

Those with a neuro-disability 

Music is processed within many parts of the brain, making it a valuable tool for those with a brain injury or a neuro-degenerative condition. There are typically three different approaches used to assist rehabilitation and quality of life, these include: 

  1. Compensatory – whereby music is used to compensate for any losses (normally in conjunction with tools such as communication and memory aids).
  2. Psycho-socio-emotional – whereby music is used to facilitate emotional expression, social interaction and adjustment to disability.
  3. Restorative – whereby music is used to help regain skill and function.

Neurological Music Therapy (NMT) is a specific model of practice that involves 20 research-based therapy techniques designed to help those with neurological disabilities.

Those on the autistic spectrum 

Music therapy is thought to help stabilise mood and increase frustration tolerance for those on the autistic spectrum. The therapy does this by helping the participant identify emotions in a different way, thereby improving self-expression. It is often the feeling of not being able to express oneself that frustrates those with autism, and music therapy offers a way of doing so that doesn't require words.

Music engages the brain in both the neo-cortical and sub-cortical levels, meaning that the listener is not required to 'think' while they listen to the sounds. This makes music therapy ideal for those who have difficulty concentrating. The repetitive sounds used within music therapy also provide stimuli and subsequently teach the brain to respond to such stimuli in better ways.

Those with dementia 

Elderly people and those with dementia can often feel isolated, music therapy for older people aims to improve self-esteem, promote social interaction, and improve memory recall. Listening to a song from the past can sometimes trigger previously forgotten memories – something that is invaluable for those with memory problems.

Listening to music can also help to aid relaxation and ease stress. Encouraging older people to explore their own creative abilities also helps to develop a stronger sense of self.

Those with anxiety and depression

Working as a medium of communication, music can help people dealing with depression creatively express themselves. Whether music therapy is undertaken individually or through a group, the very nature of music helps to ease feelings of isolation that are often experienced by those with depression.

Music therapy has also been hailed for its ability to build self-confidence, helping individuals to take responsibility for their choices and make more choices independently. Anxious thoughts and feelings can often be intervened with the use of music, with calming melodies helping to reduce stress and even lower blood pressure. 

Additionally, music therapy serves as a creative way for individuals to develop coping mechanisms for difficult situations.

Those with schizophrenia

Studies have shown that music therapy can help to alleviate symptoms of schizophrenia, such as flattened affect, speech difficulties and inability to find joy in activities. The therapy helps to reduce feelings of isolation and can increase interest in external events.

It should be noted that music therapy often works best for those with mental health issues when used in conjunction with other treatments including talk therapy and medication.

Can music therapy cure?

Music therapy has the potential to affect an individual for the better, however, some conditions are irreversible. In some cases, music therapy can have a healing effect, and in others, it can help to slow deterioration. Depending on the issues being dealt with within the therapy, the individual may require additional treatment or a combination of treatment types.

“Music therapy uses the profound emotional power of music as a medium to foster healing and recovery. It's essential to understand that this therapy isn't about just listening to songs; it's a specialised practice, crafted and tailored to individual needs, using music as an intricate tool for healing.”  

Stephen Gallini, (BSc, MSc, HCPC Registered Music Therapist) - 10 ways music therapy can support eating disorder recovery

What qualifications does a music therapist need?

The title of music therapist is protected by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which means that in order for someone to call themselves a music therapist, they must be registered with the HCPC. To register, music therapists need to have completed an approved programme in music therapy – typically resulting in a diploma or master's qualification in the field.

Your therapist should be able to provide evidence of their registration with the HCPC so that you can verify their status.

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