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A Brief Guide to Music Therapy and Mental Health-min|group listening to concert with hands up|woman listening to music with heaphones|doctor holding small guitar music therapy|person playing guitar

Health & Wellness

Music Therapy and Your Mental Health

Traditional mental health therapies focus on therapy (of the spoken kind) and medications, with perhaps the odd advice to exercise more or to find other ways to improve your lifestyle. More and more, however, alternative options, such as treatments involving time outdoors or with animals are being employed as complements to the two primary options.

Another increasingly popular option is music therapy—the idea that playing or listening to music can improve a person's mental wellbeing.

group listening to concert with hands up

Music and Mental Health

Music therapy can be individualized or done as a group. Individual therapy allows people to improvise music and then consider why they played. Group therapies can help people socialize, build a new support network, improve their social skills, and gain confidence while having the chance what they may be going through. 1

Studies show that music can be empowering and that a resource-focused approach to music therapy can help people to find and develop their strengths, allowing them to become happier and more confident. 2

Music therapy is not new, but it is only relatively recently that it has become popular with researchers, to the extent that the medical industry is taking it seriously. One recent study looked at 79 participants over a three-month period and found that the participants who received music therapy showed greater improvement in their depression symptoms than those who received other therapies. 3

woman listening to music with heaphones

Types of Music Therapy

There are four types of interventions that are popular among music therapy practitioners:

Lyric Analysis

This is a form of talk therapy where an individual listens to a song that they care about and then analyze it. The act of breaking down the lyrics of the song could help the individual identify why they like the song so much and how it relates to their own life experiences.


Playing music can be hugely therapeutic because it encourages people to express emotions and supports socialization. The people playing, especially if they are playing in a group, can create a “storm” using instruments, with highs and lows linking to the different emotions that they have been going through.

This then creates the chance for people to talk about what particular parts of the storm represent. Even with improvisation, there will be some talking involved, but since the group worked together to play the music, they will hopefully feel more comfortable talking to each other.

Active Listening

Music affects mood. The repetitive and rhythmic aspects of good music engage parts of the brain that are often under-utilized. Music can match and amplify mood or it can alter it. For instance, individuals often feel calmer when they are listening to soothing music.

If someone picks music that matches their mood when they’re in a good mood, that's beneficial. If they pick music that matches their mood when they are sad, then this could benefit them by allowing them to feel and process negative emotion.

A therapist could encourage someone to listen to music, starting with music that matches their mood and working through a playlist that builds up to calming or more positive tunes.


Another music therapy option is writing songs that reflect thoughts and experiences. This builds confidence and a sense of accomplishment and helps the player feel more positive.

doctor holding small guitar music therapy

Music Therapy Is a Serious Profession

While music therapy is still relatively niche, it is a serious profession. The American Music Therapy Association presents a list of criteria that therapists must meet in order to be certified and notes that many people can benefit from treatment.

People of all ages, those with mental health needs, developmental disorders, and even Alzheimer’s can all get something out of music therapy. 4 There is even a Certification Board for Music Therapists that helps people find qualified therapists in their area. 5

Using Music for Self-Care

If you don't want to work with a therapist just yet but do feel that you could benefit from the basics of music therapy, then you could use music as a form of self-care.

People who are proficient in mindfulness and meditation may find that adding music to their self-care regimen is a good option. The idea of using music in this way is, again, nothing new. There is evidence to show that music can be of benefit both in acute and chronic care settings, so it makes sense that it can be used to reduce anxiety and balance moods. 6

Even people who are struggling with dementia can benefit from the calming influence of music therapy, either in a hospital setting, where they play in a structured environment, or in a more casual environment. 7

However, the average individual can apply music therapy to their day-to-day life by being mindful of what they listen to and by picking playlists for given environments. For example, athletes may listen to music of varying tempo while exercising to prolong their workout. 8 Alternatively, individuals who want to meditate may put on slower and more calming music.

Aromatherapy works along a similar line as music. Choosing certain essential oils can boost energy while selecting others can help you unwind. Studies show that ginger can help reduce mood issues in women who are suffering from premenstrual syndrome (PMS), while lemon is thought to help improve cognitive performance. 9 , 10

Using a combination of aromatherapy, music, and mindfulness can be an effective way of calming anxiety and taking control of your thought processes. Often, for someone who is struggling with anxiety or stress, having a coping system and self-care system is the first step towards recovery. For milder cases, this is something that you can do for yourself, or as a complement to medications or talk therapy.

person playing guitar

Final Thoughts

Music is a powerful tool, but it is also very personal. It takes someone who is talented and patient to help a person find the best music to suit their mood and to encourage introspection. If you are struggling with your mental health and are concerned that you are not going to be able to shake off difficult times and come out the other side, then you may want to speak to a professional. Self-care is valuable, but it can only achieve so much.

Don't be embarrassed to talk to your doctor or to a local helpline if you are feeling depressed or anxious. Everyone struggles with something at some point in their life, and it’s important to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

Photo credits: MonkeyBusinessImages/, palidachan/, ARTFULLYPHOTOGRAPHER/, Mr.Whiskey/, WHYFRAME/

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