Music as Panacea: Music Therapy’s Myriad Applications & Benefits

As many of our other blog posts have shown, there is something truly magical about music: whether you are creating it, listening to it, dancing to it or simply playing it in the background while you’re doing other things, music activates your brain, forcing you to focus, make connections, let go of stress, regulate your emotions, connect with others, and unleash your creativity, among tens of other benefits. In fact, music is so magical that it has been used as a therapeutic intervention in children and adults with a range of developmental, cognitive, physical, emotional or behavioral issues for many years and has been shown to have real results. But the kid in you that honked on a recorder and never managed to get the fingering on the viola in 6th grade may still be wondering, why music and how does it work? 
It may seem like music therapy is a new, trendy approach in education. In fact, the only new thing about it is that educators, administrators and healthcare professionals are finally recognizing and accepting its value and instituting official music therapy programs in public schools, hospitals, nursing homes and many other settings. Civilizations as ancient as the Greeks were using music as a way of settling the “humors” and uniting the body, soul and mind. And beyond the limited and slow-evolving world view of the West–or the “first world”–as Peregrine Horden, the author of Music as Medicine terms it–indigenous, African, and Eastern cultures have long recognized the healing power of sound and have employed music and dance in healing ceremonies for centuries. 
Music therapy really got under way and came to be respected as a legitimate health practice, however, after the two world wars, in which musicians were sent out to veterans’ hospitals to play music for the wounded–and, as we now know, PTSD-afflicted–soldiers. Today, there are music therapy Master’s and Phd programs as well as dedicated music therapy units in hospitals and palliative care facilities; it was one of the main rehabilitation efforts following Rep. Gabby Giffords’ gunshot injury (and allowed her to sing before she could speak again!); and music therapy is now recognized by the New York State Education Department as a related service under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), meaning that it is a provided service for students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) via their schools’ special education departments. 
Okay, so the history is there, but why music? All of the arts are unique and extraordinary, but music is special in that it is universal: everyone–even babies, who might not be able to identify drawings or understand speech yet–responds to music. The visual arts can unleash your creativity and imagination, but lack structure; theater and literature, too, develop your imagination and, if practicing either one of them, confidence, but their benefits are limited to subjects of a certain age, language, culture and education level. Music, on the other hand, is a “universal language,” as The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) puts it, that “crosses all cultural lines and occurs naturally in our environment”: “Music provides a predictable time-oriented and reality-oriented structure while offering opportunities for participation at one’s own level of functioning and ability. Not only may music activities be opportunities for a child to ‘shine,’ but they may also be used to reinforce nonmusical goals. Most people, especially children, enjoy music – therefore, music therapy can be the therapy that reinforces all other therapies.”
It is precisely this universality that has allowed music to be so effective in so many areas: people who have suffered strokes or other neurological degeneration that has affected movement are better able to walk when listening to rhythmic music; music may offer children with autism spectrum disorder a means of communicating where no other has existed for them; music may strengthen dementia sufferers’ memory recall; and, most relevant to our Musication families, music can improve motor skills, enhance memory, improve fine and gross motor skills, develop speech as well as respiration patterns and muscular relaxation; and learning to play music has been linked to enhanced performance in other academic areas such as math and science, as explored in our post on Music & Math. The AMTA even asserts that music therapy enhances quality of life: “It involves relationships between a qualified therapist and child; between one child and another; between child and family; and between the music and the participants. These relationships are structured and adapted through the elements of music to create a positive environment and set the occasion for successful growth.”
The proof is there: there is really no one that couldn’t benefit from some music therapy.