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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Thomas

The Origins of Music Therapy

Hi there, and welcome back to the Thrive Journal! This month, we're talking about the origins of music therapy. As the year winds down, I always become very reflective on the year that has been, and it's because of this mindset that I decided to write about where music therapy began, and how it came to be what it is today. Perhaps you’ve even been wondering how music therapy began. If you have, you’re not alone!

The therapeutic effects of music have been documented for hundreds, even thousands of years, with the likes of Aristotle, Plato, and even the Bible referencing the ability of music to soothe the mind and body - the ancient Greeks even used music to cure hangovers! Plato stated that he considered music to be 'medicine of the soul', and the Bible shows that King Saul's depression was helped by David's harp playing. Music was also used in healing rituals by cultures all over the world, including Native Americans, ancient India and China.

It wasn't until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that music therapy as a scientific field began to be explored, although references to the therapeutic use of music were made throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In the early nineteenth century, there were some significant developments in the field of music therapy. This is when some of the ideas that guide our work today were formed. For example it was discovered in this time that music had a sedative effect on patients struggling with grief or other emotional disturbances, by "..slowing circulation and providing relief for the mind." Additionally, the concept of using familiar music to best treat a patient was born in this time, and this is something that has been proven over again in modern studies. What you could call an early strengths-based approach was also discovered in this time, by designing therapeutic programs around patients interests and backgrounds. This is also an approach that we still use today. Another technique founded in the 19th century was the use of what is now called the 'Iso principle'. This refers to matching the music to a client's mood or state, and then gradually changing the music to bring the client to a more desirable state, which we also still do in music therapy today.

Music therapy properly began to develop as an evidence-based profession after the second World War, after music began to be used in hospitals to help the wounded soldiers recover. The effects of the music on the emotional and physical state of soldiers were noticed, and musicians were more frequently asked to come and play in the hospitals. Eventually, it was decided that musicians should be given further training, and thus, the study of music therapy was born. Later on, scientists developed new ways of monitoring the brain while music engagement occurred, and due to this they were able to learn far more about the effects of music on neural processes, and how this led to physical, emotional and mental changes in clients.

From these beginnings, various schools of thought in the area of music therapy have formed, including the Nordoff-Robbins approach (most used in the UK), to the eclectic approach of American and Australian therapists, as well as newer branches, including Neurologic Music Therapy. We now enjoy music therapy as a widely-accepted and evidence-based allied health practice, and looking back at how far our profession has come in a relatively short amount of time is certainly inspiring. However, we know that there is always more to learn, and that music therapy will continue to evolve and grow as we learn more about the benefits of music in people's lives. To me, this is very exciting and I can't wait to see what we'll be doing in the future!

I hope this brief history of the beginnings of music therapy has been interesting to you, and as always, feel free to leave me your comments and questions below, or get in touch for more information. I have decided that this will be my last post for the year on this blog, as it's now December and I'm sure it will be as busy for you as it's looking for me! So, I want to take the time now to say thank you so much for reading and for following along with this blog throughout the year, and look forward to lots more music therapy information coming your way in 2023! I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

Lots of love,


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