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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Thomas

Why does Music Therapy work?

Hi and welcome back to the blog! I've talked a lot on this blog about music therapy, what it is and what it can do, going into detail about how it can be applied in various different contexts. But this month, I want to go into detail about why music therapy works and how it can be helpful in your everyday life, not just for medical and mental health conditions.

So why does music therapy work?

Well, it's all to do with your brain. Your brain is a complex and beautiful machine. Music therapy works because when you listen to or engage with music, the brain processes it in many different regions at once. It's processed in the motor cortex and auditory cortices, both of which are involved with movement and sound perception. The cerebellum also receives information from these areas (it controls balance), and so does the amygdala (which regulates emotions). The hippocampus is another part of your brain that processes music; this structure plays an important role in memory formation. Finally, there are connections between different regions of your frontal lobe—for example, between areas that control emotions and those that help us process information about ourselves or others—and those connections enable listeners to experience music in a myriad of ways.

This global employment of the brain when listening to or engaging in music means that many different goal areas can be involved at the same time. For example, musical interventions could help work on both motor and cognitive skills at the same time, depending on the particular goals. In addition to working on multiples areas at the same time, music can also allow the brain to bypass damaged areas of the brain when trying to complete a task, and use other areas to compensate. For example, when people lose their ability to speak or understand speech after a stroke or brain injury, they often are still able to sing, including remembering and singing the words to familiar songs. This is because music and singing involve many other parts of the brain, so memories of the lyrics and of how to use the muscles involved in singing can be stored in other areas of the brain, therefore 'bypassing' the affected speech areas. From this point, music therapists can teach a client how to communicate by singing, which will gradually evolve into regular speech as the brain recovers and rewires itself. Another example of how music therapy works to restore function would be if someone lost the ability to walk, music therapy could help to retrain the motor systems involved in walking. This is due to music's ability to create rhythmic entrainment between the strong, steady rhythms found in music and the rhythmic movements that are required to walk. Entraining movement to musical rhythm has been shown to immediately improve gait, as well as help to restore movement long-term.

These are just a few small examples of how music impacts the brain, but the underlying principle to why music therapy works is that music can act as a third party 'mediator' to the brain by training it how to do or relearn how to do non-musical things by engaging with and processing the musical input.

In addition to the functional goals that I've described so far, music therapy also works to improve the emotional and mental state of clients. When music is processed in the brain, it is processed by the emotional centres in our brain, including the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for our emotional responses, as well as a lot of the automatic responses in our brain, such as the fight-or-flight response, emotional responses, pleasure and reward responses, and many more. When you engage with music, it impacts these systems and can have dramatic effects on your mood, your stress response, as well as the reward centres in the brain. This means that musical engagement can work to regulate your automatic body systems, such as turning off the fight-or-flight response, while also soothing your emotions at the same time. Because of this, music therapy can be an invaluable way for people to work through their trauma or other mental health issues, as it can soothe both their conscious and subconscious behaviours and feelings in a non-intrusive and comforting way.

Lastly, music therapy works due to the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist. Music alone can do a lot for your mood and you can definitely use it yourself as a therapeutic experience, and I believe we all do this to some extent. Whether you have a song that you play to make yourself feel better after a bad day, or a particular genre of music that helps you exercise, we all use music in many therapeutic ways to improve our lives. What makes music therapy different to this is the expertise, knowledge and therapeutic skills of the music therapist. The role of any therapist is to create a safe space for their clients to work on their goals, as well as providing the necessary knowledge and assistance to apply this knowledge to clients health and wellness goals. This is no different for music therapists. Music can be used in negative ways if you don't understand the complex ways that music can affect you, so the skills and training of the music therapist are incredibly important in choosing the right musical interventions and facilitating them in a safe manner. Music can also be very powerful, and can bring up a lot of intense emotions, and music therapists have the ability to hold a safe space while clients experience these emotions, as well as the therapeutic skills to work through them.

I could go on and on about how awesome music therapy is, but I won't keep you any longer! I hope that helps you to understand why and how music therapy works and how it may be of assistance in your own life. As always, if you have questions please feel free to get in touch, or leave me a comment down below and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks so much for reading, and I'll see you back here next month!


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