How the VA is Using Music Therapy to Help Veterans

The VA has used music therapy to help veterans for over seventy years.

Main image courtesy of Veterans Affairs.

Life can be extremely difficult for military veterans. Frequently, these men and women have a long road to recovery-- from both physical and mental wounds. It can be hard to get back on your feet after being injured, or to recover from a traumatic brain injury. And these problems are aside from the struggles of reintegrating into civilian life-- of dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the problems that those things pose to your ability to communicate with others.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is always seeking ways to help veterans with the struggles of reintegrating into civilian life. One of the many services that VA hospitals and centers offer is music therapy-- which has been proven an effective treatment for veterans.

How long has the VA been offering music therapy, and how does music therapy for veterans look? We’ll take a look at the history of music therapy services in the VA, the benefits of music therapy for the struggles that veterans face, and a handful of examples of its success.

The History of Music Therapy in the VA

A man playing a guitar
Music therapy has a long history with the VA. Image courtesy of GoodTherapy.

Music therapy has been among the services offered by the VA for over seventy years. After World War II, volunteer musicians noticed that music could make a huge impact on troops’ morale and improve their mood. It was also evident that music was helping with veterans’ physical and cognitive rehabilitation-- but, at the time, there wasn’t enough information available to figure out how this worked. Regardless, the American Music Therapy Association was founded in 1950 in order to serve veterans while conducting research into the benefits and effects of music therapy.

The use of music therapy in treating veterans has expanded a lot in the past twenty years or so. In the early 2000s, the VA doubled the number of music therapists employed at its clinics nationwide-- a strong indication of the department’s dedication to developing its music therapy services.

Music therapy for veterans can take many different forms. Besides what is perhaps the most obvious form of music therapy-- listening to music, live or recorded-- it can also entail analyzing lyrics, writing your own lyrics, playing an instrument, imitating a melody or keeping a steady tempo, singing, or dancing. There are plenty of ways that these activities-- and others that the VA uses in its music therapy programs-- can be of great use to veterans struggling to get back on their feet.

How can Music Therapy Help Veterans?

Two men play guitars in front of a small display for POWs and MIAs
Music therapy has lots of benefits-- all of which can be extremely helpful for veterans. Image courtesy of Americans for the Arts.

Music therapy has been proven to help with a whole host of health problems-- it can assist with physical rehabilitation, help people learn to speak again, improve communication skills, and help people manage negative emotions and combat depression and anxiety. All of these are certainly things that might benefit veterans-- but how does it work?

When you listen to music, your ear collects soundwaves and funnels them to your inner ear, where they are converted to electrical signals. Those electrical signals then travel throughout your brain, stimulating different parts of your brain to cause different reactions. Music stimulates the parts of your brain associated with memory, emotion, vocal imitation, and movement, among other things.

As a result, music can affect the functioning of those parts of the brain on the body-- meaning that it can have real, physiological effects. Since music stimulates the cerebrum, which is associated with memory, it can help you keep your memory sharp-- which may be useful for veterans struggling with brain injuries or PTSD-induced amnesia. While music stimulates the limbic system, which is responsible for emotional responses, it has also been shown to help suppress negative emotions while elevating positive ones-- this can be incredibly useful in modulating feelings of depression and anxiety.

The physical and cognitive benefits of music therapy are also manifold and always growing. Since music affects the parts of the brain responsible for movement and communication, it can assist with physical or speech rehabilitation. Human beings have an impulse to move to rhythms, and when you pair listening to music with practicing a specific movement over and over-- like clapping or taking a step-- that movement can get more fluid and become ingrained in your muscle memory. Music therapists have been using this method to help chair-bound or bed-bound patients get back on their feet for years-- and it’s certainly useful for wounded veterans.

Finally, just as we have an impulse to move along with rhythmic sounds, we also have a talent for vocal imitation. Although vocal imitation by itself is not the same as communication, it is an important cognitive skill that people with brain injuries often have to redevelop in therapy-- and music is an excellent way of developing it. Music therapy can also help veterans suffering from head trauma learn to speak again, too, though-- by stimulating so many different parts of the brain, music helps strengthen the connections between them to allow patients to slowly recover the ability to call information to mind and verbally convey it.

Music Therapy in the Lives of Veterans

A man in a wheelchair-- Captain Luis Avila-- surrounded by US military personnel in uniform
Captain Luis Avila, after years of physical and cognitive therapy, sang at the National Memorial Day concert in 2017. Image courtesy of DVIDS.

The VA’s music therapy services have already helped hundreds of veterans nationwide. As we’ve mentioned above, the department doubled the number of music therapists it employed in its clinics and centers in the early 2000s-- and those therapists, as well as the veterans that they work with, have been hard at work reaching toward their therapy and rehabilitation goals.

Peter Mohan, a veteran of the Marine Corps, is one of these veterans. In his music therapy program with the Northport VA, which he has participated in for over ten years now, he learned how to play the guitar-- a process which, he explains, has helped him find peace and provides him with a way to connect to other veterans. Now, music and songwriting send him to a place that is entirely his own-- one where he can express himself freely and find relief in that.

Captain Luis Avila is another example of the success of the VA’s music therapy services. After sustaining serious physical and neurological injuries in Afghanistan, Captain Avila spent years in physical and cognitive therapy-- including music therapy-- in order to recover as much of his speech and physical abilities as he could. His efforts certainly paid off. In 2017, the National Memorial Day concert in Washington, D.C., found Captain Avila singing alongside Renee Fleming for a rendition of “God Bless America.” Considering his injuries, and his struggle to recover his speaking abilities, his performance was certainly a powerful one-- another example of the power of music and singing to help people heal.

The Future of Music Therapy in the VA

A veteran play a harmonica next to a member of the Air Force, who plays a saxophone
Music therapy will continue to be offered by the VA to help and serve veterans. Image courtesy of Americans for the Arts.

Music therapy has a well-established history with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and given its success in helping so many veterans find peace and healing, it’ll definitely remain a relevant part of veterans’ treatment. As research into music therapy continues, more and more of its benefits for veterans-- and medical patients-- become clear. We anticipate hearing more stories in the future of music therapy helping veterans as they reintegrate themselves into civilian life and make sense of their experiences.

Skyler Watkins
Skyler Watkins is an aspiring author and editor located in Columbus, Ohio.
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