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The healing power of music

Music therapy can be used as an effective intervention for treating mental illness

Since ancient times, music and rhythm have been an integral part of our lives, in cultures across the world. People sing songs or play instruments at every event, be it the birth of a child, a wedding, a festival, a sporting event, or any other social or cultural occasion. Music has also been used for health and healing for a long time.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is an intervention used to address a person's psychological needs. A qualified music therapist assesses the psychological and social needs of the person and provides specific treatment, which may include singing, playing an instrument, listening to music, creating music, and so on. Music therapy is effective in motivating people to continue their treatment, improving motor skills (in children with disabilities), and providing an outlet for communication – particularly to those who find it difficult to express their thoughts and emotions in words. For instance, a person who has experienced trauma (physical or mental), may be in a state of shock and may be quite overwhelmed, making it difficult for them to speak and express their deepest emotions and feelings. Music therapy breaks this barrier and helps them express their inner conflicts and unexpressed emotions. 

Like other forms of relaxation, performing or listening to soothing music (vocal or instrumental) stimulates the brain and has a positive effect on the cognitive, emotional and physical functions.

Difference between music education and music therapy

Although music therapy and education include music making, their purpose is different.


Music Education

A music therapist works with individuals who have some kind of physical or emotional issues (intellectual disability, mental health issues, developmental disorders, etc.)

A music teacher teaches music in a traditional way, to individuals who are functional without any difficulty.


The individual is allowed to learn music based on their interest and ability, and enjoy the learning process without worrying about perfection.

The individual is expected to learn music from the basics and master the technique and style over a period of time. 

The therapist and the individual work together to build a good rapport and develop mutual trust, to make the therapy effective.

Generally, a cordial teacher-student relationship is maintained, as the student's goal is to reach a level of expertise in that genre of music.

Music therapists help the individual improve many domains, including cognitive, communication, academic, motor, emotional, organizational, creative and social skills. This learning helps the individual in coping with the condition, and in managing daily life activities

Music education also helps individuals improve cognitive skills, concentration, creative and social skills. However, the learning is mostly applied only in musical performances.


Music therapy for mental illness

Music therapy is used as a complementary therapy (along with other treatments) for mental illnesses. The aim of music therapy is to address issues that can be difficult to manage using words or medicines alone. A professional music therapist selects the appropriate music (vocal or instrumental), keeping in mind the cultural and personal preferences of the person, to make the therapy effective and an enjoyable experience on the whole.

Music therapy has been effective in treating conditions such as autism, ADHD, Down's syndrome, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, addiction, etc. Family members can also undergo music therapy to cope with their emotional issues.

Did you know? After World War II, several musicians would visit various hospitals around the United States of America to play music for patients suffering from post-war physical and emotional trauma. Thereafter, doctors started hiring musicians at their clinics as they observed significant benefits of music on the health of post-war sufferers.

Types of music therapy

Depending on the need and ability of the person to understand or learn any form of music, the therapist may use one of these versions of music therapy.

Background music therapy: Music is played in the hospital, over the radio or audiotape for a few hours, to create a calm environment. This alleviates anxiety, stress, and helps patients relax, especially those in critical care.

Contemplative music therapy: Helps the individual appreciate the significance of music and art in general. Before playing the music, the group or individual is given a biography of the composer and other details about the music. This therapy aims to soothe agitation and alleviate sadness.

Group music therapy: The therapist teaches singing to a group of people or teaches them to play an instrument. This is generally used for in-patients at hospitals.  strengthens self-confidence and self-esteem.

Musicians playing music: A musician performs in the wards of a hospital. This form of therapy is generally used to treat children with mental retardation, autism, or persons with emotional issues.

Creative music therapy: Individuals write songs, compose music, and play instruments as a form of catharsis. It helps them express their grief (over a deceased loved one), and repressed fears and feelings through song and music.

Components of music therapy:

Music therapy includes several components and each of them are effective in their own way. Therapists use the best suited component that can aid persons in their recovery.

  1. Songwriting: People can write songs and express their otherwise suppressed thoughts and emotions. Music therapists assist them in writing simple lyrics by combining rhythm and melody. For example, words in a specific song are replaced with the individual’s own emotions, creating a simple poem.
  2. Analyzing lyrics: Therapists help individuals learn how to analyze words and verses in a song that they like. This can lead to a discussion that reveals the person's emotional issues. For example, a specific song’s lyrics, which is related to the individual’s life, can help them explore and understand their emotions in a deeper way.
  3. Listening: The individual listens and reacts to live or recorded music. They may respond to music through activities such as relaxation, meditation, structured free movement, drawing, painting, etc.
  4. Playing instruments: Individuals who have trouble communicating through words can express their feelings and emotions by playing a musical instrument of their choice, and this can be gratifying for them. It may also help develop their motor skills, as it requires hand-eye coordination (especially in children with autism, ADHD, and other developmental disorders). Playing a musical instrument is a joyful way of communicating with one’s inner self and others; it also helps in improving memory, social skills, confidence and creativity.
  5. Recreating music: A self-expression technique where the individual and music therapist create impromptu music. The individual, within their capability, may use any musical or non-musical medium such as voice, body, sound, percussion, images and stories, to create music. This technique helps the person become aware of their suppressed emotions, which are expressed through music. The therapist then works on these emotional issues.

The rhythm, melody, and meaningful poetry in music creates a positive impact on people and helps them cope with their illness and daily life.

This article has been curated with inputs from Dr Meenakshi Ravi, musician and founder of Meera Centre for Music , Bangalore.