How Music Therapy Has Helped the Military

This history of music and the military is as remarkable as their future

One of the most notable accomplishments of music therapy is its growing expansion as a treatment option for various mental and physical health conditions. The types of populations and settings in which music therapy is utilized also continues to broaden. 

With high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in military personnel and veterans, music therapy can be an effective treatment option for those populations. If you’re curious about the relationship between music therapy and the US military, read down below for: 

  • The history of MT and the military
  • A modern-day portrait of a music therapist in the military
  • The future of MT and the military
Person plays a guitar while sitting within a busy and crowded plaza area. Crowds of people stand around talking and listening to the live music.
Live music performance provided early evidence of the therapeutic effects of music. Image courtesy of Pexels.com.

The History of Music Therapy and US Military

The relationship between the US military and music therapy began during the Civil War. Musicians formed military bands and would perform for injured soldiers, and this tradition would be maintained throughout World War I and II as well. Injured soldiers responded so positively amidst their physical and emotional trauma that veterans soon followed suit in receiving therapeutic music treatments. 

In 1945 the US military officially started a program that planned to use music to recondition service members in Army hospitals. Since the inception of that music therapy program, the military has expanded use of the therapy to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma exposure in both active-duty and veteran populations. 

Accredited music therapy programs began to emerge throughout the 1950s as the intervention became more standardized and implemented. Research on the effectiveness of music therapy in treating various conditions has also expanded in the last few decades. Many studies have assessed music therapy as a clinical treatment for PTSD in different populations, concluding that music therapy could reduce symptoms of the stress disorder. Studies have also confirmed the positive effects music therapy had on PTSD patients in military populations, with results confirming reduced symptoms rates and positive emotional changes in soldiers and veterans. 

Along with music therapy research studies emerging throughout the 1900s, specialized training and education for music therapists had also been established. College programs for music therapy were developed and the establishment of the National Association for Music Therapy in 1950 cemented music therapy as a groundbreaking clinical practice in the US. The stories of those who love and practice music therapy are as important as the history of the therapy itself. 

Young man named Jake Keller smiles while playing a guitar outside his military tent.
Jake Keller posing with a guitar gifted to him by Appalachian State University. Image Courtesy of Morganton.com.

Military Music Therapist: A Portrait of Jake Keller

A modern-day example of music therapy integrated into the military can be seen though Jake Keller of Morganton, North Carolina. He joined the US Army in 2014 and brought his music therapy skills along with him. Keller had already completed a bachelor’s in music performance in 2013 and started on a bachelor’s in music therapy from Appalachian State University the following year. 

Keller was ecstatic to join the North Carolina National Guard, which allowed him to serve while receiving tuition assistance to pursue a degree. Opportunities such as performing community service and providing disaster relief were given to Keller in the military, causing him as much stress and lack of sleep as well as gratification with his work. 

Studying music therapy in school while serving overseas fortunately kept up the spirits of Keller and those around him. Keller performed music with other soldiers and during chapel services while stationed in Kuwait and Iraq. Keller described music as a “wonderful opportunity... to meet others and connect” during his time with the military. Being able to help others while developing music therapy skills helped Keller to tailor his future career toward becoming a board-certified music therapist. 

A love for service work combined with a passion for music are a winning combination of qualities that should exist in most music therapists. And the rich history of music therapy and its relationship with the US military has led to present-day opportunities for music to intervene in the wellbeing of active-duty soldiers and veterans. 

Following the completion of his bachelor’s in music therapy, Keller interned at an Asheville hospice care facility--which is one of many places where music therapy is practiced on military populations like veterans. Opportunities for music lovers like Keller to work with military personnel, military families, and veterans are bountiful. Music therapy is practiced in a wide variety of settings for the military, such as VA hospitals and military bases. And as the number of settings in which one can receive music therapy for military-related traumas increases, the future of music therapy practice seems brighter. 

Older man in a black suit and glasses smiles while dancing and listening to music with headphones.
As accessibility to music therapy increases, more veterans can benefit from its positive effects. Image courtesy of Pexels.com.

The Future of Music Therapy and the Military

With the amazing effects that music has shown on military personnel and their mental health, music therapy shows promise in having continued support from the US military. Research studies and music therapists alike hope to make the treatment more accessible to those in need of it. An inspiring music therapy initiative from the National Endowment of the Arts shows promise in that goal becoming a reality. 

Known as Creative Forces, the NEA’s initiative is currently building a national network of support sites providing music therapy treatment to military personnel and their families. With ten current sites spanning from Alaska to Florida and more future sites to be planned, there appears to be a promising future in the mental health treatment of military populations. 

Jake Keller and NEA’s Creative Forces are fantastic examples of music therapy successfully integrating into treatment for military personnel. Keller displays the power of music therapy on an individual level. He impacted the lives and emotions of his fellow soldiers and citizens in nations overseas, and he will continue his work in his home country of the US. Keller began graduate studies in music therapy in 2018 and plans to work with veterans in VA hospitals and hospice care. At the same time, Creative Forces promises a hopeful future for the mental health of military personnel across the nation. Whether at the level of an individual or an organization, the positive effects of music therapy are remarkable.

Cristal Thomas
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