The Basics of Music Therapy

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You’ve probably heard the trope that “music soothes the savage beast.” While it may seem like a massive overstatement, there’s an element of truth to it.

Andrea Scheve, MM, MT-BC is a certified music therapist who specializes in hospice and end of life work. She says that the reason that music is so powerful is because it goes beyond traditional communication. “We’ve all heard the quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Music is the universal language of mankind.’”

Music is found in all civilizations, even in nature. Humans are musical, and more specifically, rhythmic. “Your walking pattern is a rhythm, speech is rhythmic, and even on a more basic level, your heartbeat is a rhythm,” Scheve says. “We are all connected through rhythm and music. It is good for our body, mind, and spirit, no matter what your individual spiritual or religious beliefs are.”

Music is as elemental to the human condition as breathing, and it can be used as a tool to help people cope with everything from depression and physical pain to stress management and communication issues. “Music goes where language can’t,” says Laurel Terreri, MA, MT-BC, a board-certified music therapist at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital in Long Beach, California.

Here’s what you need to know about music therapy and how you can apply it to your life.

What is Music Therapy?

Music Therapy, according to the American Music Therapy Association, “is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, the qualified music therapist provides the indicated treatment, including creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music.”

Essentially music therapy is used as a tool to help people with a wide variety of mental and physical ailments cope and communicate, and there are a variety of scientific studies that have proven that it can be very beneficial.

Music therapists work with everyone from premature babies to people in end-of-life hospice care and everything in between, and the process of working with a therapist can be different based on the needs of the person seeking treatment. “Music Therapists work in approximately 50 different settings with many different populations,” Scheve says. “There are several different advanced training options for Music Therapists who specialize in specific populations.”

“Each therapist/client relationship is unique and based on the professional assessment of the therapist and the needs of the client,” Scheve says. “Music therapists are all musicians, however, the patient/client is not required to be a musician to benefit from the therapy session.”

What happens during Music Therapy?

Music therapy is a specialized treatment, but the process of working with a music therapist is similar to working with other skilled health and mental health professionals.

When you first start working with a music therapist, they will generally do an assessment to determine what treatment path might be right for the issues or goals you want to address. “The therapist will gather as much information as possible and put together a treatment plan. As with any therapist, it is good for the patient/client to interview the therapist as well to make sure it is a good fit,” Scheve says. “During the assessment, the therapist will measure the patient/client’s musical abilities and preferences and incorporate those (if any) into therapy sessions. Sometimes music lessons help in achieving certain goals, and music lessons will be incorporated into therapy.”

When she conducts relaxation sessions, for example, Scheve says she uses live guitar and vocals to lead patients through visualization and relaxation exercises.

“As the therapist, I am manipulating the music in a way to elicit a physiological relaxation response, which is why live music is so important in music therapy. The patient simply has to close their eyes and follow my instruction,” she says.

We are all connected through rhythm and music. It is good for our body, mind, and spirit, no matter what your individual spiritual or religious beliefs are

Music therapy is also used in hospital settings, like the one that Terreri works in. “Music Therapists co-treat with our rehab therapists (speech, occupational, and physical therapists), collaborating with each other to help patients meet their rehab goals through music. For instance, we may use instruments to encourage a patient to use a limb affected by a stroke, or we may use singing exercises to help a patient with breath support in order to regain their ability to speak after an accident. We also serve babies and families in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where we record the heartbeats of mothers to play at the bedside of their babies when they can’t physically be at the hospital,” Terreri says.

Music therapy can range in price, too, depending on the level of skill and education of the music therapist and their specialization. A quick online search shows pricing that ranges anywhere from $50 per half-hour session to $150 and up for a 90-minute session. In the days of the pandemic, music therapists are increasingly offering their services online, as well as in-person, too.

How can you apply lessons from music therapy to your life?

Music therapy is a highly varied profession with practitioners specializing in a wide variety of populations and needs, yet there are a few standard tools and techniques that music therapists use to help their clients that you can apply in your own life.

Music can lift you up, supercharge your focus, and calm you down (amongst other things), so first, Terreri suggests that you determine what you want to get out of your music experience. “Rule number one is, use music that ‘works’ for you, whatever that music is,” she says. Just because you are feeling depressed doesn’t mean you should start with happy music, she notes.

“We meet patients where they are, validate their emotions and feelings, allow for self-expression, and then work on moving them from their depressed state to a more positive state,” Terreri says. “So, when attempting to ease depression, first validate that that’s where you are at this moment. Play music or sing songs that reflect your current mood. It’s okay to feel that way, and when we realize that, it is easier to move through it. You can say, ‘This is how I’m feeling for right now,’ validate it, express it, and then take one step to move through it.”

Scheve notes that you should also recognize how you use music throughout your own life, and leverage that to support yourself and those you love — especially during the days of the pandemic when we are all feeling more isolated than usual.

“The need for connection and support is heightened in our current pandemic situation,” she says. “Music is a great tool to support all of these things, either sending a friend or a loved one a YouTube link as a song dedication to let them know you’re thinking of them, to creating a playlist for motivation for exercise or using music for personal relaxation/daily meditations. Music can be used for wellness and to lift our moods, and our loved one’s moods in many ways. As a musician, I find writing songs to be therapeutic for times when I’m feeling the need to express my frustrations, emotions, or losses.”

You don’t have to necessarily be a musician or have a great singing voice to get the benefits of music, however, Scheve says.

“Reading through the lyrics of your favorite songs and reflecting on the meaning in the lyrics and the music, and sharing your thoughts with others, or listening to their interpretations, may be a good way to connect during this difficult time,” she says.

Both Scheve and Terreri recommend singing as a great way to relieve stress and tension because it requires deeper breathing which can help regulate your system and move you from the “fight or flight” stage to the “rest and digest,” stage.

“Singing is a wonderful way to reduce stress and allow for expression,” Scheve says. “Practice taking the deep diaphragmatic breaths required for singing and see how it can clear your mind and help you focus. Please keep in mind that the coronavirus is a respiratory virus, so my current recommendation is to sing at home, or somewhere you are alone, and not at risk for contracting or spreading COVID-19.”

Read more of my story over at Shondaland.

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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