6 Ways Music Therapy Can Help Mental Health

Feb 28, 2024

Anyone who has listened to a meaningful song from their childhood, or one that brings back the memory of a lost loved one or pumps them up before a big game or presentation, knows a compelling connection between music and emotional well-being. Emotion is translated into lyric, melody, and rhythm.

From the earliest days of human civilization, music has been seen as a powerful medicine for the body and the mind. The Greeks used music for therapeutic purposes. There were even shrines dedicated to combining medicine’s power with music. Today, we have an even better understanding of how music impacts mental health, and the modern field of music therapy was born out of the trauma of World War II. Today, the American Music Therapy Association is the largest music therapy organization in the world, serving well over 5,000 music therapists across 30 counties worldwide.

With World Music Therapy Day this Friday, March 1st, let’s see just how it is that music can treat mental health concerns, like depression, stress, or anxiety.

Music Therapy & Mental Health

Music therapy is a creative arts therapy that uses music to achieve non-musical goals—used with a wide variety of populations, including developmental (Autism, ADHD, Down Syndrome), rehabilitation (traumatic brain injury, stroke), psychosocial (depression, anxiety), aging (dementia, healthy aging, palliative care) and neurodegenerative disorders (Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s disease).

Music therapists in Canada must graduate from an approved university with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, complete a 1000-hour internship, and pass the certification exam. They may receive advanced training in programs including neurologic music therapy, bonnie guided imagery, and music. After receiving their certification, music therapists must complete continuing education to expand their learning and keep up-to-date with current research and best practices.

Therapists use active music making (singing, instrument playing), recreative music (learning songs), writing music, and passive music (listening). Furthermore, music therapy programs start with a consultation, the non-musical assessments (trail-making test, tower of Hanoi, digit span, three-word recall), creating goals and objectives to support the individuals, treatment period, reassessment using the initial assessments, and treatment summary.

Work Through Your Problems

Sometimes, when the night is long and dark, it may feel like your brain is running at a million miles an hour, and you can’t find your way out of the maze of thought. Next time you feel like this, try putting on some low music instead of staring at the ceiling and letting it flow over and through you. If it brings tears, that’s okay! Crying is a great way to release pent-up emotions.

And that’s the point. Music can help you express your emotions, either through playing or simply listening. A study published in the British Journal tells us what every toddler with a wooden spoon and a pot knows: music is cathartic, especially drumming. So bang away!

Relax & Get Creative

One of the hallmarks of depression and other mental health concerns is a lack of motivation. Try music! Go ahead, pump up the jam! Finnish researchers found that your brain goes into a mind-wondering mode when processing a song, which inspires and supports creativity. And you don’t need to be an artist to reap this kind of benefit; this works for everyone!

Professor Gold, one of the scientists on the Finnish research team, had this to say about their findings: “Our trial has shown that music therapy, when added to standard care including medication, psychotherapy, and counseling, helps people to improve their levels of depression and anxiety. Music therapy has specific qualities that allow people to express themselves and interact nonverbally–even when they cannot find the words to describe their inner experiences.”

Take a Deep Breath

As you probably already know, music can change your heartbeat or slow your breathing. Musicians, watch out! You may respond differently from the rest of the population!

We all feel the music. You can’t help but tap your foot to the beat, and sooner or later, your whole body starts to sway. We’re all familiar with the thump of the bass beating in our chests at a concert or festival. But science suggests it goes much deeper than that.

A slow, even, meditative tempo has a remarkable relaxing effect on your body, slowing your heart rate and breathing. At the same time, faster music with an upbeat tempo can raise both.

With a strategic use of music and tempo, you can control your body by choosing which songs to listen to.

So next time you start to feel anxious and your heart rate starts to climb, reach for some headphones and listen to a nice, relaxing mix.

Turning Down the Pressure

Stress is an ever-present part of most of our lives today. Added stress often leads to dangerously high blood pressure. But music can help with this, too! Rather than taking two and calling me in the morning, try a short, 30-minute classical, Celtic, or reggae session per day to lower your stress and blood pressure.

A study by Dr. Peter Sleight from the University of Oxford has successfully shown that “music can alleviate stress, improve athletic performance, improve movement in neurologically impaired patients with stroke or Parkinson’s disease, and even boost milk production in cattle.”

Okay, that last one is a little weird, but it fits right in when you consider that a cow’s stress levels can profoundly impact their milk production.

Leaving it All Behind

Music is a time machine. Sometimes, it can take you to a happy place full of warm memories and good feelings. Other times, it can take you somewhere painful. Hopefully, once you get there, you can remember the lessons you learned then and see how much you’ve grown and changed since those days and how much better you’re doing now. Coming to terms with and leaving behind those memories allows you to be open to new things and adventures!

Kicking the Habit

Another area in which music can be used to help treat mental health is addiction. Of course, music isn’t strong enough on its own to help someone recover from a substance abuse problem, but it can be a valuable tool along the way.

In Thailand, there is a Buddhist temple called Thamkrabok. There, they offer free addiction treatments. Thanks to its incredible therapeutic powers, music plays a vital role at the temple. The monks even have their own recording studio!

The monks use every aspect of music we have discussed here today to help those who come to them fight their addictions. Finding and coming to sobriety after a long time in the dark is an emotional roller coaster. And music, whether played or listened to, can help some people rid themselves of their destructive behaviors and emotions.

Music is a powerful tool whose effects we are still learning about thousands of years after we started making it. So next time you build a playlist, choose your songs wisely; they may inspire you to start a new challenge, kick a bad habit, start something new, or change your life in ways that you can’t even imagine.

Music Therapy

Want to wield the power of music therapy in your own life or for your children? Reknee Harrett is a music teacher, board-certified music therapist (MT-BC), accredited music therapist (MTA), and Neurologic Music Therapist (NMT) who completed their education at the University of Toronto Master’s of Music: Applied Music and Health Sciences (M.Mus.) under the direction of Dr. Corene Thaut. Reknee has extensive experience as a music therapist and music teacher for neurodivergent (Autism, ADHD, global developmental delay) children, youth, and adults, people with traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease, and genetic disorders, global developmental delay, intersecting diagnosis, mental health, elderly care, and mental health support. Reknee is committed to providing effective, holistic, and affirming music therapy sessions that value and celebrate each individual for who they are.

At The Music Studio, we offer neurologic music therapy. Why neurologic music therapy? It is a research driven, evidence-based practice that uses the neuroscience of perception and production of music to influence non-musical changes in the brain. Moreover, it is endorsed by the World Federation of Neurorehabilitation (WFNR), the European Federation of Neurorehabilitation Societies (EFNS), and the International Society for Clinical Neuromusicology (CNM). Sessions are client centered and neurodiverse affirming to support the needs of the individual.

Learn more here, and sign up today!