History of Music Therapy

When and How Did Music Therapy Get It's Start

Music is often referred to as the universal language and is present in every culture throughout the world. Historians believe that the first musical instrument was created about 42,000 years ago, but the history of music itself goes back even further. It is very tough to pinpoint the exact moment music was born, which makes it difficult to find the true origin of using music as medicine. The concept of using music therapeutically has been around since years that ended in "BC”, however, this is all we know for sure. There hasn't been a discovery that can confirm the exact time the concept of using music as medicine began. 

Photo of Girl Playing Piano

What is Music Therapy?

According to Music Therapy Connections, “music therapy is an established healthcare profession that uses music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals of all ages”. Music therapy can help treat individuals with autism, learning disabilities, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and more. Music therapy can be used to address social, motor, emotional, psychological and physical goals in individuals of all ages and abilities. 

Music therapy has been a formal profession for over 70 years, but where did music therapy originate? How did people use music therapeutically before it became an evidence based profession? How has music therapy progressed over the years?

Ancient Greek Temple

Music Therapy in Ancient Greece

The concept of using music to treat individuals’ needs is not a new one. Therapeutic music was being practiced long before it became a formal profession. The basic idea of this therapeutic practice is ancient, at least as old as the teachings of the great philosophers, Aristotle and Socrates. A teacher of Socrates and Pericles, Damon of Athens, explained that music has a great influence because it simply “imitates the movements of the soul”.  This is an important element of music’s therapeutic qualities. 

In Ancient Greece, it was a common belief that music had the power to heal. This can be traced back to two notable groups at the time: The Orphic Cult and the Pythagorean Philosophers. They both shared the belief that music could heal the soul. They used two kinds of songs with the intention of cleansing the soul. These two types of songs were called paeans and epodes.  

We see the healing powers of paeans referenced in the first book of the Iliad. The Iliad is a book in the classic series of Homer’s epics. In Homer’s Iliad, the Greeks were saved by singing hymns and paeans. This lifted the plague cast upon them by Apollo, off their shoulders.

The way we see music used in this case, is in direct correlation to what we know as music therapy. The paeans and hymns are what relieved the stress of the Greeks caused by Apollo’s plague. This may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of traditional therapy methods. This is not the kind of therapy where you lay on the couch and “talk about your feelings”. But it is an instance where therapy comes into play. All therapy aims to do is to help improve a person's quality of life. No matter how that objective is completed, it counts as a form of therapy. This situation called for music to be the therapeutic ship sailing to the island of mental clarity. Thus, making this a use of music therapy. 

Philosophy is a recurring theme in Ancient Greek culture. It was a time where humans questioned the world around them and really acknowledged differences in opinion. Many of the great philosophers we learn about today analyzed the concept of using music therapeutically. They started to see effects that music had on mental health. 

One of the most prominent historical figures in Ancient Greece is Plato. Plato had a system of beliefs that is referred to as Platonism. One platonic view was that music was an important factor in the development of an individual’s personality. He even referred to music as “the medicine of the soul”. He believed that music could have a direct impact on the soul. Aristotle also had views on the impact of music on the mind and soul. Aristotle believed that music could relieve negative emotions people were experiencing.

Basically, he believed in music therapy. Ancient Greek philosophy provides some of the earliest evidence of people viewing music as a therapeutic tool. So, I believe this can be noted as a tentative “start” to the profession of music therapy. 

Image result for the columbian magazine 1789

The Beginning of Music Therapy Publication

In 1789, the Columbian Magazine published an article titled Music Physically Considered. This piece of literature is known as the first article published about music therapy. The author of this article remains unknown. However, they make it a point to reference a mind, body, and soul connection. The author of Music Physically Considered tackles this subject in the second paragraph of the article stating:

“it must be granted that such is the established connection between the soul and the body,

that whatever cause powerfully affects the one, the other sympathizes with it, and is, in 

the end, often times proportionably affected”

In this statement, it is acknowledged that the soul and body are closely connected. The unknown author of this historical document would go on to make implications about the impact music has on this connection. Particularly, the positive affect music has on the soul. Remember, Socrates also spoke about the music’s ability to heal the soul. The author attempts to foreshadow the future of music therapy at the end of the article. They conclude with this statement:

“I am of the opinion, that music will be found, if not superior, at least equal to any article 

we know to be made use of in the Materia Medica.”

Whoever wrote this was ahead of their time...

Man Holding Us Flag

Music Therapy as a Profession

We’ve analyzed some early accounts of the utilization of music therapy. We see that using music for therapeutic purposes has been a concept for many years. However, there was no such thing as a “music therapist” and the term “music therapy” wasn’t conceived at this time. Now, let’s see where music therapy began as a formal profession. 

In the first half of the 20th century, two major wars took place that would change the world forever: World War I and World War II. They are arguably two of the most significant events to take place in western history. After these wars took place, soldiers came home with immense amounts of physical and emotional trauma. This is where music therapy came into play. Initially, musicians of all different genres performed at Veteran’s hospitals in front of thousands, and it quickly became evident that the music was having a positive effect on the mental and physical health of the veterans. This led to doctors calling for musicians to be hired by hospitals and trained in counseling, psychology, anatomy and physiology. This was the birth of what we know today as a “music therapist”. 

After people saw the effect music therapy had on veterans, they began to look deeper into what this practice could do for individuals dealing with mental health issues. In the 1940s, people in America started to examine the opportunities that music therapy presented as a clinical practice. The topic began to be discussed in more educational outlets. More books, articles, and case studies delivered information about music therapy. There was a great spark in awareness, and people began to arise as early innovators in the field. They took research and implementation of music therapy tactics to a new level.

The American Music Therapy Association sheds light on some of music therapy’s most influential people.

“In the 1940s, three persons began to emerge as innovators and key players in the development of music therapy as an organized clinical profession. Psychiatrist and music therapist Ira Altshuler, MD promoted music therapy in Michigan for three decades. Willem van de Wall pioneered the use of music therapy in state-funded facilities and wrote the first "how to" music therapy text, Music in Institutions (1936). E. Thayer Gaston, known as the "father of music therapy," was instrumental in moving the profession forward in terms of an organizational and educational standpoint.” 

These people played an integral part in making music therapy the well-respected clinical profession it has become. The 1900s were the most impactful years in music therapy. This time period is what paved the way for what music therapy has become today.

Person Playing Brown Ukulele

Music Therapy Today

Today, music therapy is a well established allied health profession that is offered at many colleges and universities across the US and around the world. Music Therapists must graduate from a bachelors, or equivalency program in music therapy, and pass the board certification exam.  Most music therapists go even further and obtain their master’s degree.

According to the Career Explorer, music therapy is expected to see a growth rate of 7% from 2016-2026. This rate of growth is faster than the average across all occupations. There are roughly 19,200 music therapy jobs in the United States currently. The state with the highest number of music therapy employees is New York with over 1,500 jobs.

The numbers suggest that music therapy is a growing field with a promising future. As we discover more benefits of music therapy on mental health, the demand for music therapists will continue to rise. Music therapy is gradually sparking more interest within the field of mental health services. Who knows? Maybe one day music therapy will be the preferred method of therapy as opposed to more traditional practices. Only time will tell!

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 16, 2021

Kraig Hill
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