The Healing Power of Music

If you ask someone who is their favorite band or musician often, you’ll be met with there being far too many to name. When a favorite is proclaimed it’s likely that a few more will ultimately also be named if the conversation continues. Music is a universal language that makes the heart sing, the body heal, and the soul feel complete. The right kind of music can do all these things anyway. Music that works for one person may not work for another which is where music therapy comes into play. This blog will look at the origins of music therapy, how music can be medically beneficial, and resources to direct you to learn more.

Origins of Music Therapy

PSYCOM provides an in-depth slideshow looking at the origins and continued benefits of music as therapy. While modern music therapy may be a 20th-century “invention,” it is by no means a new concept. Ancient Greek philosophers used music therapeutically, playing tranquil flute melodies to manic patients, while people with depression were treated to the soothing sounds of a dulcimer (an instrument similar to a zither).

Physicians and musicians were housed in holy healing shrines—further cementing the intertwined relationship that music and healing had in Ancient Greece. Early Ancient Egyptian medical papyrus texts describe chant-like incantations for healing the sick. And within Chinese medicine, a tradition with an ancient lineage, music is seen to correspond to the five different organ and meridian systems, which can be used to promote healing.

It further illustrates that old is new again starting with the Tibetan singing bowl that originated in the 12th century oft performed by Buddhist monks. Today wellness centers offer sound baths where practitioners incorporate singing bowls into experiential musical therapy.

Modern music therapy originated during World War II. Many soldiers struggling with physical and emotional trauma (such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) were institutionalized, unable to function in society. Volunteer musicians of all types, both amateur and professional, began playing for hospitalized veterans.

Noting the positive physical and emotional impact, doctors and nurses started requesting regular visits from musicians. It was thought that hearing familiar songs helped stabilize and calm the soldiers—bringing them back to a more peaceful time before the war. Overtime, standards and training programs began to emerge. In 1944, Michigan State University founded the first college music therapy program, a step toward codifying the approach as a therapeutic discipline.

Medical Benefits

The PSYCOM article referenced above, along with this article from Harvard Medical School look deeper into how music can be therapeutic for nearly all that ails you. Music as therapy has shown positive and beneficial effects in managing a host of medical conditions, like high blood pressure, as well as an effective treatment for some mental health conditions. Usually part of a multi-pronged approach to care, music therapists work with doctors, nurses, social workers, and other practitioners to alleviate depression, trauma, schizophrenia, and more

A growing body of research attests that music therapy is more than a nice perk. It can improve medical outcomes and quality of life in a variety of ways. Here’s a sampling:

Improves invasive procedures. In controlled clinical trials of people having colonoscopies, cardiac angiography, and knee surgery, those who listened to music before their procedure had reduced anxiety and a reduced need for sedatives. Those who listened to music in the operating room reported less discomfort during their procedure. Hearing music in the recovery room lowered the use of opioid painkillers.

Restores lost speech. Music therapy can help people who are recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates in the right side of the brain, people can work around the injury to the left side of their brain by first singing their thoughts and then gradually dropping the melody.

Reduces side effects of cancer therapy. Listening to music reduces anxiety associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It can also quell nausea and vomiting for patients receiving chemotherapy.

Aids pain relief. Music therapy has been tested in patients ranging from those with intense acute pain to those with chronic pain from arthritis. Overall, music therapy decreases pain perception, reduces the amount of pain medication needed, helps relieve depression, and gives people a sense of better control over their pain.

Improves quality of life for dementia patients. Because the ability to engage with music remains intact late into the disease process, music therapy can help to recall memories, reduce agitation, assist communication, and improve physical coordination.


Want to learn more or find a therapist in your area or even learn strategies from the safety of your own home? These resources can be of assistance.

American Music Therapy Association: This site gives the basics of what music therapy is, where you can find a qualified therapist, and the prerequisites a therapist must have in order to be licensed.

Positive Psychology: This article provides 15 music therapy activities and tools that can be tailored to your own needs.

The Certification Board for Music Therapists:  CBMT promotes excellence by awarding board certification based on proven, up-to-date knowledge and competence in clinical practice. Their vision is to ensure access to safe, effective music therapy services for all.

World Federation of Music Therapy: An international nonprofit organization bringing together music therapy associations and individuals interested in developing and promoting music therapy globally through the exchange of information, collaboration among professionals, and actions.

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