Your Brain on Music

When it comes to treatment for mental health, most people will think of traditional therapy methods and medication, However, there are many other approaches that can be used in tandem with these. One such therapy form is Music Therapy. In Music Therapy the patient works with the therapist, a musician, and other patients to work towards different goals. Music therapy is not confined to a single time or place in an individual’s life. From helping a premature infant learn to bottle-feed to improving the quality of life after the loss of a loved one, Music Therapy’s effects are indisputable. Each approach is highly individualized and tailored to the specific needs of the individual. This is done through careful collaboration with a team of other practitioners and caregivers such as occupational therapists, psychologists, medical doctors, and family members. Music Therapy engages and influences the mind and body in many different ways which can be pleasant, stimulating, therapeutic, and inspiring.

Music Therapy can consist of both passive and active engagement with the music. Examples of passive engagement include music-assisted relaxation and music informed imagery. These forms use music of highly specific tempos and rhythms to synchronize the heart’s rhythm with the music. Throughout the therapy session the music’s tempo will decrease slightly, usually from about 100 beats per minute to about 80. Patients that have been observed during these therapy sessions have been shown to have a parallel decrease in their heart rates (Fiore, 2018). Active engagement includes music and lyric discussion and analysis, singing, composing, improvising, and playing instruments. These forms of Music Therapy require a lot of cognitive engagement and can be useful in treating a myriad of mental health disorders from ADHD to PTSD and depression. In addition, Music Therapy can incorporate Movement Therapy though exercise and dance. Movement Therapy helps to improve the patient’s range of motion and coordination. Individuals with developmental disorders, stroke patients, and other injuries greatly benefit from Movement Therapy.

But why does Music Therapy work? It works because it engages different neural-pathways and mechanisms in the brain. Simply listening to music causes dopamine, the “feel-good hormone”, to be released in the areas of the brain associated with rewards: the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, and the prefrontal cortex (Legge, 2015). This form of passive Music Therapy is especially important and useful for  people with anxiety disorders because this reward pathway is often under-developed and under-engaged. In addition, individuals with anxiety disorders often also have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In high concentrations cortisol leads to high blood pressure, higher heart rates, and a general decrease in health and well-being. Guided Musical Imagery and musical improvisation decreases cortisol concentrations by deactivating the HPA axis: the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.

Because Music Therapy is often done in a group setting, it can often be very anxiety provoking. The anxiety of leading others and being in a group is increased in individuals with anxiety disorders. So, to use traditional music therapy group methods, the therapist must be hyper-aware of the reactions and emotions of the patient (Hull, 1973). Overtime, and through many trials, the anxiety experienced by the patient while performing these tasks diminishes and such tasks as leading, or simply being in a group, will no longer be anxiety provoking.

For older patients, the most effective cognitive behavioral music therapy, CBMT, methods are songwriting and lyric analysis. CBMT, which has three primary levels: behavioral issues, cognitive distortions, and underlying causes, uses music to not only motivate the patient, but engage and enhance their positive feelings towards treatment and recovery (Hilliard, 2001). CBMT provides the patients with an outlet to express themselves and work-through issues and learn to problem-solve with healthy coping mechanisms. When using CBMT, a Music Therapist works side by side with a team of psychologists and medical doctors to ensure that the patient is meeting their recovery goals as efficiently as possible. While the music itself is important to their treatment, the rapport and connection with the therapist is just as, if not more, important as the music (Hull, 1973)). The relationship between therapist and patient provides the patient with validation, increased self-esteem, a feeling of acceptance, and a healthy emotional outlet.

Even though the positive results of Music Therapy are undeniable, Music Therapy is under-funded in the United States, causing most Music Therapists to have to work part-time and have other, more reliable, jobs. Music Therapy is an extremely effective mental health and physical therapy method and can be an essential step in the road to recovery for many people of different backgrounds and walks of life.



Fiore, J. (2018). A Pilot Study Exploring the Use of an Online Pre-Composed Receptive Music Experience for Students Coping with Stress and Anxiety. Journal of Music Therapy, 55(4), 383-407. doi:10.1093/jmt/thy017

Hull, R. F. (1973). The Role of Anxiety in Music Therapy. Journal of Music Therapy,10(1), 13-17. doi:10.1093/jmt/10.1.13

Legge, A. W. (2015). On the Neural Mechanisms of Music Therapy in Mental Health Care: Literature Review and Clinical Implications. Music Therapy Perspectives, 33(2), 128-141. doi:10.1093/mtp/miv025


One thought on “Your Brain on Music

  1. This article was interesting because it is well-known that we can influence emotions/mood/physiological responses through music. For example, the article discusses how music designed to reduce heart rate is done by gradually playing slower music throughout a therapy session. I believe that similar techniques are used by DJs or producers, but in the opposite direction of increasing heart rate to excite a listener (either throughout the song or over the course of your time at a concert/club/etc. Applying these techniques for a non-intrusive, low-stakes therapy method seems highly useful–which makes it all the more disappointing that music therapy (as the article points out) is underfunded and under-used. On a different point, the article mentions that music therapy is most frequently done in groups. When is music therapy done in one-on-one situations? Has it been found to be more useful to start with individual music therapy before group music therapy? Additionally, this article seems to describe the personal benefits for reduction of anxiety; does music therapy help in treating phobias or exposure to other triggering or anxiety-inducing conditions, such as OCD?


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