Does Music Therapy Really Work?

July 1, 2020

It has been said that music can heal anything. If you are having a rough day, turn on the radio and allow the feeling of the beat and sounds of the vocals to reach your soul. If you are sad, turn on a happy tune. Need to get “pumped up” for a workout or a sporting event? Turn on something with a strong beat. Regardless of your emotional state, there is a strong belief that music can have a healing quality. Enter music therapy. But what is music therapy exactly, and how does it work?

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy involves utilizing music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, or even social needs of an individual or a group of individuals. Music therapy isn’t merely sitting in the chair with your headphones on and listening to your favorite songs. It involves a variety of activities, including playing an instrument, drumming, writing songs, guided imagery, and of course, listening to music of all kinds. One of the most definite benefits to music therapy is that is can be beneficial for people of all ages and all health conditions. You do not need to be physically ill or struggle with a mental illness to benefit from music therapy. Research has shown that music therapy can be beneficial for a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, trauma, and schizophrenia.

Interventions of Music Therapy

There are four primary interventions involved in music therapy. They include:

Lyric Analysis

Traditional talk therapies such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Psychodynamic Therapy allow one to speak about topics or events they may find difficult to discuss. Lyric analysis provides a less threatening approach to process emotions, thoughts, and experiences. During the music therapy session, the recipient is encouraged to offer their thoughts, alternative song lyrics, and themes from the lyrics that they can apply to obstacles in their life or treatment. The theory behind this being we all have a song we can deeply connect to and appreciate. Lyric analysis allows the opportunity for an individual to identify song lyrics that correlate with their experiences.

Improvisation Music Playing

Playing instruments encourages emotional expression, socialization, and exploration of various therapeutic themes, such as conflict communication, grief, etc. A group of individuals playing instruments (percussion instruments, for example) can create a story through their music. The music can rise and fall, or the feelings behind the beat can escalate and deescalate based on the group’s emotions. The group can then correlate the music’s highs and lows to the feelings they may have during the session. This creates an opportunity for the group to discuss their feelings further and on a deeper level.

Active Music Listening

Music can play a substantial role in mood regulation. Music engages specific portions of the brain, specifically the neocortex, due to its rhythmic and repetitive elements. Stimulating this part of the brain helps to bring about a sense of calm and reduce feelings of impulsivity. Music is commonly used to match or alter our moods. Using music to match one’s mood can have both positive and negative outcomes. When our mood is depressive, angry, or anxious, matching music to those emotions can keep us in the same state. Music, however, can be used to alter states of mood as well. To alter mood, a music therapist can play music that matches the current state of mood and then slowing shift to music that promotes a more positive or calm state.


Songwriting provides extensive opportunity for expression in a positive and rewarding way. Anyone, regardless of age or emotional state, can create lyrics that reflect their own thoughts and experiences. Also, they can select instruments and sounds that best integrate with the emotions behind those lyrics. This process can help to build a stronger sense of self-worth and value. This particular aspect of music therapy can also help to instill a sense of pride when the individual has the opportunity to listen to their completed creation.

Emotional Effects of Music Therapy

Music can have a profound effect on human emotion. Whether it’s listening to playing or creating your own music, music can make people feel happy, sad, excited relaxed, or have more energy. The ability to affect human emotion is one reason music therapy was first used in a medical setting and continues to be used today.

Scientific research has shown that music releases mood-enhancing chemicals into our bodies. Therapists can capitalize on this increased release of chemicals to aid in treating patients for physical ailments and mental health disorders. Two of the most common chemicals released into the body via the use of music therapy, dopamine, and endorphins, are shown to have individual impacts on mental health symptoms.

  • Dopamine: dopamine is Commonly known as the “feel-good” chemical in the body. When dopamine is released into the body, it increases the amount of pleasure receptors in the system. Research has shown this chemical is triggered as a reward for meeting a desire by the brain, such as eating or sleeping. However, dopamine also releases while listening to music. This can aid someone with a mental health disorder by helping them too feel more pleasurable emotions and encourage them to seek out healthy activities to achieve that feeling.
  • Endorphins: endorphins are a hormone released into the body that gives a person A sense of euphoria and promotes a happier state of mind. Scientists have discovered that music can create this feeling of happiness by releasing endorphins into the body, similar to that of a “runners high.”

Physical Effects of Music Therapy

It is not uncommon to feel the emotional effects of listening to music every day. When you turn on the radio, the song that is playing can make you feel happy, sad, or even excited or energetic. While many people have experienced the emotional side of music and its benefits, not everyone realizes that music can generate positive physical effects as well. The research into the physical benefits of music is relatively limited, and there is still a lot to learn about how the body reacts to music. However, recent studies have shown that music therapy can help the body recover quicker from injury or ailment and reduce the pain a patient feels by releasing chemicals into the body.

Three chemicals are affected by the use of music, especially within the medical setting.

  • Endorphins: as noted above, music can help release endorphins into the bloodstream, which can help create a more positive emotional state. Endorphins are also a potent pain blocker. Like painkillers such as morphine, and orphans can help stop pain receptors from transmitting messages throughout the rest of the body. This can be beneficial for individuals who cannot utilize pain medication due to a previous substance abuse disorder.
  • Immunoglobin A: Immunoglobin A Is a cell that seeks out and attacks viruses and other threatening agents inside the body. Music has been shown to increase the number of these cells in the body, and this increase has had a direct correlation to a strengthened immune system that is better able to fight off potential illnesses.
  • Cortisol: Cortisol is a stress hormone that is shown to be dramatically lower while listening to relaxing music. Increased cortisol levels are a common symptom in a variety of mental health disorders, including anxiety and stress. Reducing Cortisol levels through music therapy may reduce stress levels and decrease anxiety in patients who struggle with these mental health conditions. There is even a small amount of anecdotal evidence showing that Cortisol can lower levels better than anti-anxiety medications often used to treat patients with stress or anxiety-related mental health conditions.

Music Therapy and Mental Health

More than likely, music has had a positive impact on You’re emotional or mental health at some time during your life. Possibly your favorite song made you feel better when you were going through a tough time. Or maybe a song from your childhood made you smile by bringing back fond memories. While still in its infancy, a growing body of research proves that music therapy and mental health are connected. Throughout history, music has been an essential outlet for healing. This includes treating and healing mental illnesses. Over recent years, music therapy has seen an increase in usage, particularly with younger age groups and seniors. Research also shows that music therapy can help stimulate mood, which can help to foster mental health.

Depending on your emotional state, music, regardless of genre, can be extremely therapeutic. When performed by a professional music therapist, music therapy has been reported to help decrease anger, anxiety, stress, and even depression. While music therapy alone will not cure a mental health disorder, it can be used successfully as part of a multidisciplinary approach to mental health. Music therapy may be beneficial for patients who suffer from any of the following mental health disorders:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • Addiction disorders
  • disordered eating
  • schizophrenia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • personality disorders

Music Therapy and Depression

Music therapy can help treat the mental health disorders listed above as well as many others. However, a significant portion of the available research into music therapy is based on its effects in treating or helping to treat depression. According to the National Institute of mental health, clinical depression affects nearly 20 million Americans each year. Clinical depression can bring about symptoms, including significant amounts of grief, loneliness, and feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, among others.

According to research, music therapy can increase the effectiveness of various antidepressant medications prescribed to individuals struggling with clinical depression. Music therapy can also help to decrease stress and reduce blood pressure, which are also impacted in individuals with a clinical depression diagnosis.

Guitar - Music Therapy - Hillcrest

Other Benefits of Music Therapy

Music therapy also has other benefits for human health. Some of these additional correlations between music and physical or mental help include:

  • The Heart: Research has shown That blood flow to the heart increases while listening to music that the individual finds joyful. Also, a minimal body of research has shown that listening to Mozart for 12 or more minutes a few times a week can help to decrease blood pressure.
  • Addiction: if you struggle with addiction, it has been shown that joining a music group such as a choir or a band may be beneficial. People who join groups such as bands or choral groups often find serenity, build social networks, and are better able to let go of stress. This can help recovering addicts when they experienced triggering events or abnormally elevated stress levels.
  • Depression and anxiety: as noted above, there is a significant amount of research into the benefits of music therapy for those diagnosed with clinical depression. There is also a strong link to the success of musical therapy for individuals who struggle with anxiety disorders, even Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the use of music as a medicinal treatment has been around for many, many years, the research into its success in treating mental health disorders as well as physical disorders is still in its infancy. There is a lot of work left to determine how music therapy works on the body to treat mental health disorders and establish (statistically) how beneficial music therapy is as a standalone treatment or As part of a multidisciplinary approach to mental health treatment. Regardless of what statistics may show, music does have healing properties, and those can be seen simply by turning on the radio in your car when you’re feeling down. Listening to music that you find enjoyable can help uplift your spirits and elevate your mood.

If you are struggling with a mental health disorder and are curious about music therapy and whether it may be beneficial for your teen, contact Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center today. Our California teen treatment providers can teach you and your teen about music therapy, how it works, and how it may help you as part of a broader treatment plan related directly to your mental health needs. We look forward to talking with your family soon.