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History of Music Therapy and its Applications

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 2420 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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It improves the mental capacity of children, reduces physical and mental pain and restores the body and mind. Half an hour of it even has the same effect as a 10mg tablet of Valium. “What is this cutting edge drug?” you might ask, and when you hear the answer, you may clean out your ears and repeat the question. When you hear “music” again, you may become confused or experience a moment of quiet disappointment. Despite having these benefits and many more besides, society still does not recognise music therapy as anything more than relaxation for the rich. Music therapy is an underrated and underappreciated resource that all human beings could benefit immensely from. The healing properties of the “universal language” are not new to medical authorities, although breakthroughs are still being made every year. Music has been applied medicinally for hundreds of years, and is still very much in use today, its therapeutic properties being utilised to treat illnesses and to improve the quality of life for anybody willing to give it a try.

Music Therapy in Society

Music therapy is a process in which music (usually classical, but varies from case to case) is played to an individual or group of individuals with the purpose of improving a physical, mental or emotional condition, or simply to regulate anxiety and improve the subject’s mood. Sometimes the music has this effect all by itself; other times, the therapist acts much like a psychiatrist, their relationship with the client being one of support and guidance. The main therapeutic activities that patients engage in are improvisatory singing/playing, listening to music, composing songs/lyric writing and performing pre-composed pieces. Each form of treatment has many different effects on the listener: improvisation (often done within a specific context, e.g. with the intention of expressing emotion about a certain event) can improve communication and self-expression skills. Moreover, listening to music reduces stress and lowers heart-rate. Music is a universal language: everyone can immerse themselves in the rhythm, dive into the flow of sound and float gently beneath its swirling tides. However, music’s many properties were not lost on past generations.

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Music has been around for millennia: the oldest known song, dated at approximately 4000 years old, is written in cuneiform. Music therapy has been around for as long. Evidence of ancient music therapy can be found in biblical scriptures dating back from ancient civilizations such as Rome, Egypt, Greece, China and India. The following is an excerpt from the bible (I Samuel 16:14-23):

14 Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.
15 And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skilful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.”
17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.”
23 And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

Other references made to music therapy include al-Farabi (a turco-persian psychologist and music theorist from around the 10th century a.d.) as well as the scholar Robert Burton in the 17th century a.d. Music therapy as we know it today began to emerge in the mid-1900’s when it was greatly implemented and explored after World War One and Two. Part of the regime used for recovering soldiers included live musical performances in the hospital, which improved morale immensely. The first undergraduate degree offered in “musico-therapy” was introduced in Michigan State University in 1944. As imaging and brain recording technologies went from science fiction to reality, so did music therapy: its effects on the brain became evident, and a profession once regarded as mystical became a modern science.

Music therapy is an option that the public is still very much unaware of. However, just because many of us do not know of its existence does not mean it is not in rigorous application. Music therapy can be found many places, if one would care to look. The Canadian Association for Music Therapy lists several examples of places where one might find a music therapist: “Hospitals, day treatment programs, community programs, correctional centres, long term care centres, substance abuse and addictions centres, schools, hospices, private practice”. An example of music therapy in schools is of a child that was acting out in class and was referred to the school’s music therapist, where he let out his anger by banging away randomly and furiously at a drum set; an exercise which eventually settled into a steady rock and roll rhythm (MTBAC, 2008). Music therapy is being applied world-wide: in the United States, a program for rehabilitating war veterans back into society is being organised (Six Strings for Soldiers); in China, albums are sold with titles such as “Obesity”, “Constipation”, and “Insomnia” designed to reduce their namesakes (Campbell, 1997); in India, in Canada, etc. Music therapy is an ancient art turned science, developed through the ages and still being researched today, and is currently in use maintaining the health of the average citizen as well as treating individuals with a multitude of problems.

Music Therapy Treatments

Music therapy can be used to treat or improve a wide spectrum of disorders and conditions of a neurological and/or psychological nature. Music has the ability to induce drastic changes in mood: it can calm, soothe, bring joy, excite, and inspire any other emotion you can imagine. This quality is still being researched scientifically, as its neurological causes for this are still uncertain. Using said mood changing properties, music therapists can treat patients with conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), Alzheimer’s disease, and psychosis. Since 2007, Guitars For Vets (an American non-profit organisation) has offered US Army veterans music lessons and guitars: over 8000 lessons and 1200 free guitars have been given to veterans (Guitars For Vets, 2010). This program also offers veterans an opportunity to connect with others in their position (see section of this research paper entitled: Rehabilitation Through Music Therapy). M. Thaut (Ph.D) and G. McIntosh (M.D.) say in their 2010 article How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain: “Music therapy can retrain auditory perception, attention, memory, and executive control (including reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making).” Music therapy can also improve physical conditions.

Music therapy has significant effects on the human psyche, which in turn affect the body. Patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic pains have been known to benefit immensely from music therapy. Thaut and McIntosh describe several effects of music therapy on individuals with Parkinson’s disease: “For those with Parkinson’s disease, it was interesting to see that music and rhythm could quicken their movements and also serve as an auditory trigger to keep the movements going and prevent “freezing” (the sudden halt of all movement), which occurs frequently in Parkinson’s patients.” (2010). In a fascinating experiment, they tested their hypothesis stating that muscle coordination could be improved using rhythmic patterns of sound to positively affect “non-musical movement”. This was done by having the subjects with Parkinsons’s disease and with stroke-induced brain damage synchronise their steps to a rhythm (2010), much like soldiers marching to a drill sergeant’s tempo. The results were extremely encouraging, even proving more effective than standard physical therapy. Music therapy also has the effect of distracting the patients, which allows them to forget pains and worries. Dr. Raymond Bahr, director of the coronary care unit at Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, claims that a half hour of music played to patients had an effect equivalent to 10 mg of Valium, which is a powerful muscle relaxing substance available by prescription only (Campbell, 2010). Besides healing or improving existing conditions, music therapy can also help rehabilitate individuals.

Music therapy can treat and improve various ailments, including physical and mental deficiencies and diseases. However, music therapy can also rehabilitate mentally and socially. As singing uses the right hemisphere of the brain more than the left, patients with aphasia (a language disorder which could involve an impairment of memory pertaining to language or an impairment of speech or non-verbal communication; reading and writing), whether due to brain damage caused by a stroke or tumor or even a learning disability, can partially bypass injured sections of the brain and also rehabilitate these regions (Thaut and Mcintosh, 2010). This has the effect of improving speech and fluency of speech Rehabilitation could also be social, as is the case with autistic individuals or victims of PTSD. The father of an autistic child says that after attending music therapy, the child started wanting to talk, which he previously was not interested in doing (Rosenblum, 2009). E-4 infantryman John Hamling says about Guitars For Vets: “(…) it’s an organization that gives you the chance to connect with other veterans that have gone and are going through the same things you are experiencing in life.” (Guitars For Vets, 2010). A veteran of the Vietnam War who spent two years as a prisoner of war and bore witness to the My Lai Massacre of 1968 returned home to a mental institution, where he refused to have a roommate and had very little human contact. Rick was diagnosed with schizophrenia and incipient dementia and deemed a danger to himself and those around him. In the years leading up to the writing of the article quoted, he has made incredible progress due to music therapy, moving out of isolation and accepting a roommate, even performing for other patients from time to time (Rosenblum, 2009). If applied properly, music therapy can effectively rehabilitate individuals mentally and socially, but music’s beneficial properties are not limited to those who requiring healing.

Music Therapy For All

Anybody can benefit from music therapy, not just individuals with emotional, mental or physical problems. Music therapy has been known to reduce stress in clients who engage in it, and as stress is one of the greatest causes of discontentment, it therefore also increases happiness. Music allows room for the self-expression and the release of anger. The angry high-school student who let out his frustration through drumming that was mentioned in the Modern Applications section of this research paper was also described by the school’s music therapist to have been walking around the room and whistling after his session of emotional release and skipping out the door at the bell (MTBAC, 2008). Besides improving the mood of the individuals who partake in it, music therapy is also linked to intelligence.

Music therapy has been associated positively with mental capacity. In the chapter of The Mozart Effect concerning music in education and intelligence, Campbell writes the following:

In a comprehensive review of hundreds of empirically based studies between 1972 and 1992, three educators associated with the Future of Music Project found that music instruction aids reading, language (…), mathematics, and overall academic achievement. The investigators also found that music enhances creativity, improves student self-esteem, develops social skills, and increases perceptual motor skill development and psychomotor development.

D. Campbell, 1997 Basically, it explains that students who engaged in music performed better in school and  experienced an improvement in their self-esteem. The Arizona Health Sciences Library (of the University of Arizona) states that music has been known to increase “intelligence and brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to anatomically change itself)”as well as “short-term memory retention on intelligence tests” (AHSL, 2007). Music clearly has a great and positive effect on the human mind, and it can benefit anybody willing to give it a try.


Although music therapy is not the newest pill on the shelf, or the cheapest one, it is without a doubt the healthiest. Music therapy has been around for thousands of years, since the days of the Romans and the Ancient Greeks, and is still around today for a simple and excellent reason: it works. It has evolved over the years, and is today applied to treat mental and physical conditions as well as to rehabilitate those in need. Music therapy also holds benefits for the whole and hale, as it is known to decrease stress and unhappiness while increasing contentment and cranial capacity and function. It is not very well known, but then again, neither was Vincent Van Gogh, and just like Van Gogh, it paints beautiful images in our minds and allows us to attain the ultimate form of enlightenment: happiness.


  • Thaut, Michael (Ph.D.) & McIntosh, Gerald (M.D.) (2010). How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain. The Dana Foundation.
  • Rosenblum, Andrew (2009). How Are Bay Area Medicinal Units Using Music Therapy to Treat Neurological Diseases? Spot.us.
  • CAMT (2006). Music therapists. Musictherapy.ca
    Music Therapy Association of British Columbia (2008). Music therapy: A Sound Decision.
  • Mtabc.ca.
    Campbell, Don (1997). The Mozart Effect. New York: Avon Books.
    Guitars For Vets (2010). Testimonials. Guitars4vets.org
    Arizona Health Sciences Library (2007). Music Therapy Benefits. Tucson & Phoenix: University of Arizona.


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