Music Therapy Research Paper

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Music therapy as a formal discipline emerged soon after the Second World War, when veteran's hospitals across the United States started to host musicians to improve quality of life of patients. Since then, a wealth of scientific literature has emerged about the efficacy of music therapy. Nearly every patient population seems to respond to music therapy, including animals. Music has been shown to have anti-anxiety, pro-immunity properties and can raise dopamine levels in the brain (Landau, 2013). Moreover, music therapy is a tool that also can be used with patient populations from different age groups and cultural backgrounds. Music therapy has proven especially promising in helping children with autism because of the way music transcends language and enables a more direct and authentic expression of emotional and psychological content (Laudau, 2013). The elderly have responded well to music therapy, too, and so too have patients with Alzheimer's disease. Music therapy even has an impact on unborn babies and neonates, as well as their anxious mothers (Schlez, Litmanovitz, Dolfin, Regev & Arnon, 2011). Because of the universality in its application, its near complete lack of adverse side-effects, and its proven link to healing a number of different conditions, music therapy should become an integral part of health care.

The American Music Therapy Association (2013) defines music therapy as "creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music" to evoke positive psychological change. Much research on music therapy involves the participants actively engaged with playing and creating music. For example, Schlez, et al. (2011) found that live harp therapy helped to reduce maternal anxiety, especially when it was combined with kangaroo therapy.

Music therapy has a significant impact on mental and physical health outcomes. Lowered heart rate and improved cardiac health may result from using music therapy. Research shows that music therapy is as effective as relaxation exercises in reducing the incidence of cardiac complications (Guzzetta, 1989). Music therapy has been used on specific patient populations such as children with terminal illnesses. In one study, pediatric patients with terminal cancer were offered music therapy, and it was found that a variety of music therapy interventions including composition, playing, and listening helped to alleviate emotions like fear and anxiety (Fagen, 1982). Fear, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are primary focuses of music therapy research. Music therapy has been proven effective on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is true for different types of music therapy including active playing and also listening. As Landau (2013) points out, sometimes playing music can bring up initial anxieties that seem to exacerbate the PTSD symptoms, but eventually the individual overcomes the anxiety and finds a place of peace. One woman showcased in the Landau (2013) article was suicidal before she found music therapy. After music therapy sessions, she joined a band and turned her life around.

Depression is in fact an area in which music therapy is proving especially effective. Recent research shows that even just listening to music in a structured way via music therapy can reduce symptoms in people diagnosed with clinical depression (Erkkila, et al., 2011). In this study, background music therapy was used. The different types of music therapy may have different effects on different people at different times. This is why music therapists are adept at understanding what types of interventions to use for each patient. Some patients will respond better to background music or listening; whereas others need the high stimulation of playing music or composing music. Others might want a combination of types of music therapies.

Furthermore, music therapy is equally as effective at improving the quality of life of those who do not suffer from a debilitating or life-threatening condition. In Healing at the Speed of Sound, Campbell & Doman (2012) write for a general audience. Their work is rooted in evidence-based practice, but they present the material for people who want to learn how to incorporate sound and music therapy into their daily lives. The first chapter, for example, is about the importance of starting each day with healthy and happy sounds. The brain responds to positive sounds by "mirroring" what it perceives (Campbell & Doman, 2012, p. 3). The implication is that music creates the law of attraction in which the positive emotions help the person attract positive situations. Campbell & Doman (2012) advise the use of "sound breakfast" each morning to ensure a positive start to each day (p. 4). Although music therapy as a formal discipline did not emerge until the 20th century, knowledge of the power of music had been around for millennia.
As the American Music Therapy Association (2013) points out, ancient Greek philosophers lauded the power of music for healing. Both Aristotle and Plato are credited with writing about music and healing (American Music Therapy Association, 2013). As early as 1789, records indicate that musicians were being employed to help doctors heal their patients, with positive results (American Music Therapy Association, 2013). As of 2013, there are several certification programs and professional organizations to help psychologists and musicians combine their talents for healing.

Neuropsychology and related disciplines are among the most exciting fields of research in music therapy. As Campbell & Doman (2012) point out, exposure to specific types of music -- usually classical and baroque -- have measurable impacts on the brain. In particular, there is a "molecular basis" for a "priming effect" that takes place when listening to classical and baroque music (Campbell & Doman, 2012, p. 6). The priming effect is particularly conducive to learning, as the music stimulates brain cells and the synapses. These neuronal stimulations lead to improved scores on memory tests (Campbell & Doman, 2012, p. 6).

Music therapy can also be used to help athletes train. Campbell & Doman (2012) found that music can be tailored to specific workouts, with fast-paced music and slow-paced music alternating depending on whether the athlete is warming up, engaging in intense practice, or cooling down. Music therapy is integral to biofeedback, in which the individual is encouraged to become more in touch with the body's responses. Therefore, music can enhance practices like yoga and meditation (Landau, 2013). The sheer fun of participating in music creation can take a person away from a place of pain and deliver him or her to a place of peace.

There are some surprising areas of research emerging, such as the impact of music therapy on diseases like Parkinson's. deDreu, et al. (2012) found that music, combined with movement therapy, can have a positive effect on individuals with Parkinson's disease. Used with movement therapy, music therapy can help persons with balance, muscular, and other movement limitations. In similar ways, music therapy helps children with communication difficulties and autism because it allows the individual to be in touch with the body and the emotions (Baker & Roth, 2004). Referred to as "neurorehabilitation," the assistance of people with serious problems with music therapy provides a promising roadmap for the future.

When looking at the research, it is tempting to believe that music therapy can help nearly anyone and can be used to alleviate almost any condition. It is important to remember that music therapy must be used in conjunction with other therapies when needed. Music therapy is not a miracle; its tenets are rooted in scientific research and practice. There are no published adverse effects of music therapy, which is a significant issue in and of itself.

One of the most important features of music therapy is that music is a universal phenomenon that transcends culture, so that therapists can work with people who speak different languages. This is especially helpful in a multicultural and heterogeneous society like that of the United States. Because of the potentially low costs associated with music therapy, it can be used in places around the world on needy populations without access to expensive medical care.

Music therapy also has an important spiritual dimension some patients may find comforting. Of course, a music therapist does not have to approach music therapy from a spiritual or religious perspective, but as Campbell & Doman (2012) point out, the connection between music and religion is well established in cultures around the world. Singing gospel or chanting Sanskrit are some of the ways music is used for spiritual peace. Clients and patients that resonate with a spiritual approach to music therapy will find that it benefits them especially well.

Music therapy is an established evidence-based practice that can accompany any other healing modality. It is a safe and universal practice, with wide application and potential to heal a number of different conditions in different patient populations. Music therapy can and should be integrated more often into health care.


American Music Therapy Association (2013). What is music therapy. Retrieved online:

Baker, F. & Roth, E.A. (2004). Neuroplasticity and Functional Recovery: Training Models and Compensatory Strategies in Music Therapy. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 13(1): 20-32.

Campbell, D. & Doman, A. (2012). Healing at the Speed of Sound. New York: Plume......

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