What is Music Therapy and Can It Treat Chronic Pain?
Let’s explore what music therapy is and how it can be used to treat chronic pain.
Ann-Marie D'arcy-Sharpe  Author
February 20,  2020
Music can be a powerful tool. When you hear a specific song, it can evoke a memory. Think about when you hear a song from your childhood or teen years. It takes you right back to that time and feels extremely familiar, whether that’s in a positive or negative way.
When you play an instrument or sing a song, it gives you a creative way to express your feelings. Music has the power to evoke so many emotions within us, from joy to sadness. Music can make you feel motivated and ready for action, or it can help you to relax, unwind, or compliment your meditation practice.
The power of music makes it a valid and popular therapy option to help people deal with their feelings, regulate their emotions, relieve stress, reduce pain and even more.
The British Association of Music Therapy describes music therapy as, “an established psychological clinical intervention” which helps people “whose lives have been affected by injury, illness or disability through supporting their psychological, emotional, cognitive, physical, communicative and social needs.”
The origins of music therapy
Using music in a therapeutic way is far from a new concept. Even primitive humans used music as a pivotal part of their culture as this study explains. The study goes on to discuss that even in the bible, music is used to treat mental illness: “A biblical example for applying music in therapy was King Saul, who was treated for depression by harp playing”.
In 1560, patients in psychiatric wards were treated using music therapy. During the renaissance, an Italian musician started using music to treat a range of ailments, including using music for pain relief ! Over the coming years, the use of music to treat mental and physical health continued to be explored, although not yet in a scientific way.
During World War 1 and 2, groups of musicians would visit hospitals and play their music to veterans who were physically injured or suffering mental trauma from the war . The veterans showed a positive response emotionally. Even progression with physical ailments was noticed. The doctors and nurses were so impressed by the difference the visiting musicians had made, that they asked the hospital to employ them to come and play for the patients regularly.
Over time it became more obvious that these musicians needed some training in how to use music in a more therapeutic way. In the following years a music therapy curriculum was developed. The science of music therapy became a topic of significant interest. The term ‘music therapy’ itself was introduced around 1950 . Music therapists became licensed, valued therapists and more in-depth research on the topic took place.
What happens during music therapy?
Music therapists are qualified and registered like any other type of therapist. They work in a variety of settings including, “hospitals, schools, pupil referral units, day centres, hospices, care homes, therapy centres, prisons and in private practice” as the British Association for Music Therapy explains.
Music therapy sessions may be carried out in a one-to-one setting or in a group, depending on the needs of the patient. Like other therapy sessions, you will see the therapist regularly, often once a week for a set number of weeks. At the start of the sessions you’ll get to know your therapist a little bit and discuss what your goals are from therapy. Your therapist will form a treatment plan based on your health issues and how they feel they can help you. The therapist will likely talk to you about what genres of music you listen to and what your preferences are, so that they can tailor sessions to the individual more effectively.
From then on during sessions you may focus on singing songs, writing songs, playing instruments or listening to music. You don’t need to be musically skilled or have any prior experience with music. You may pick up some skills along the way, but the purpose of the sessions is not to teach you music, but rather to use the power of music to reach specific goals.
For example, if you and your therapist agree that the goal of the session is to express your feelings about an injury, then you may be encouraged to write songs which express how you feel about that experience. Alternatively you may be asked to play an instrument in a way that lets you really release those emotions. If your goals are to promote relaxation and stress relief , you may lie in a comfortable position and listen to very calming music.
Your therapist may teach you how to use music to change and control your emotions. Music and the emotions it evokes has a physical effect on our heart and respiratory rate. This study explains how strong a connection there is between music and how our bodies react: “When we are exposed to slow beat music the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated decreasing the heart rate and while listening to fast beat music the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and increases the heart rate.”
If you are feeling angry or stressed about your situation, your therapist may put on a calming song and ask you to really take notice of how that affects your mind and body . Once you are aware of the calming sensation the music can have on you, you will be able to use that in your day-to-day life.
Music therapists will often give you ‘homework’ to do between sessions, using music to face challenges in your daily life. If you find a task stressful or painful, such as washing the dishes, your homework may be to listen to a specific calming song during that task. The therapist will likely ask you to take note of how that helps you so you can discuss your progress in your next session. You will learn together what does and doesn’t work for you.
Many music therapists will work alongside other therapists or incorporate other treatment types to create a multidisciplinary approach. They may work as part of a pain management clinic for example, or alongside other psychological therapists. Their end goal is to get the best results for the patient.
What can music therapy be used for?
Anyone of any age and physical or mental ability can take part in music therapy. There are many benefits that can be gained from this type of therapy:
Creative expression of feelings
Music therapy can allow you to express your feelings, whether they are negative or positive. This can be extremely useful for those who have trouble voicing their feelings. Even for those of us who are able to talk about how we feel, having another outlet to express deep feelings in a creative way can feel freeing and cathartic.
For patients who struggle with communication, for example those who have difficulty with speech or are non verbal, music can provide a way to communicate.
Expressing feelings which may have been bottled up can allow an individual to feel much more at peace. Relaxing music can also be used to promote stress relief and create a calming atmosphere. Binaural beats in particular, have been shown to aid relaxation as the frequency and tones used are designed to have the brain enter the relaxed alpha brain wave frequency.
When music therapy is performed in a group setting, it can help patients who have been socially isolated to connect with others who may understand what they are going through. Attending therapy regularly allows them to maintain these regular social connections and learn new social skills. This can be very confidence-building and help them form other connections going forward.
Distraction and joy
Music therapy can provide a wonderful distraction from ill health and stress. It can provide an opportunity to just enjoy oneself and leave any worries outside of the therapy session. For some patients, the focus is to bring more joy into their world rather than to work on deeper issues.
Different beats and speeds of songs can help you to change your emotions and learn how to control them.
Improving cognitive skills
Music therapy can help to improve coordination and motor skills, as well as increasing levels of concentration and expanding attention span.
Promoting better coping skills
As patients learn how to use music therapy during their sessions, they will then be able to utilize these skills in their daily life to cope with adversity and the challenges their ill health brings.
Music therapy can be used for a wide range of mental health and physical health problems including:
Austistic spectrum conditions