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You Can Feel It All Over: A Look (or Listen) into Music Therapy

February 20, 2020

Stevie Wonder said it best, “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.” Some use music as an outlet for artistic expression, others as an entertainment medium or opportunity for social gathering. It’s motivation during a workout, but it’s also relaxation during a quiet night at home.  Regardless, music presents itself in countless facets of the human experience, with the practice of music therapy highlighting the all-encompassing nature of music and how it welcomes itself to a place in healthcare.

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of musical interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” As the latter half of the definition implies, this is more than simply playing music in hospitals. The AMTA also describes music therapy as a combination of psychology, medicine, and music; cites 72 US colleges with approved music therapy programs; and notes how therapists attend 1,200 hours of clinical training in their education.

While some of its earliest formal references appear during the turn of the 19th century, the modern practice of music therapy began to take form during the first half of the 20th century. Multiple music therapy associations emerged during this time period, but the AMTA currently stands as the largest body of music therapists. The AMTA officially launched in 1998 as the result of a merger between two of the leading associations at the time, and is now home to over 5,000 members in over 30 countries. Meanwhile, 1983 saw the establishment of the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT), which now issues the Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC) credential, a standard for all AMTA members.

Music on its own yields significant psychological effects, but music therapists take the effects of music a step further, approaching their craft through a methodological, scientific lens. A 2013 study at Beth Israel Medical Center analyzed music therapy in a NICU setting, using music to slow down premature babies’ heart rates, improve sleep patterns, and increase alertness. Other studies have measured music’s ability to calm patients and even relieve physical pain, such as when administering IVs and, in the instance of the NICU study, lowering parents’ stress levels. Music therapy’s also used in ongoing treatment, with some therapists employing song and dance when working with people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and others using music to help children with autism improve their communication skills.

In the public limelight, music therapy could be heard from center stage in 2011 when it was used during the rehabilitation of Gabby Giffords. The Arizona Congresswoman suffered a bullet wound resulting in brain damage that inhibited her ability to speak. Nonetheless, music therapy served as part of Giffords’ recovery as she essentially relearned how to speak. While it wasn’t the entirety of her recovery, music therapy helped Giffords cultivate neuroplasticity, or the ability for the brain to overcome damage by developing an alternate mental road to functionality, leading Giffords’ music therapist to describe music as “that other road to get back to language.”

Altogether, music therapy is a unique, more-than-meets-the-eye practice that’s rooted in science, yet flourishes with a tune when treating people. It presents a variety of treatments to meet specific patient needs and gives hospitals and health systems an opportunity to use a universally-recognized concept to “Healthcare Differently.”

Sources and Further Reading:

Definition and Quotes about Music Therapy

Gabby Giffords: Finding Words Through Song

History of Music Therapy

Music as medicine

What is music therapy and how is it used in a hospital?