Music Therapy Across Cultures: How Music Reveals Universal Truths to Each of Us

Surprisingly, While the Language of Lyrics Changes, Music is Constant Across Culture

Music has long served as one of the great tools to build bridges between different cultures. With the ability to present a beautiful form of music, people are able to demonstrate their culture, and oftentimes their values, directly through musical performance. The result? This allows them a chance to connect with their audience in a way that transcends language barriers. Everybody who can hear the music can understand something about it -- the emotion, the spirit, the humanity. And this in turn lets them feel more connected to the artist performing.

In the 21st Century, music therapy is quickly becoming another musical outlet that can build bridges between different cultures. There are many places around the world that use music therapy in a different way than it is typically applied here in the United States. And thanks to a recent gathering in Seoul, South Korea, experts from over 45 countries were able to meet and explore music therapy as it is applied by eastern and western philosophies.

While there are pros and cons to music therapy, it is being shown to be a valuable tool when applied in the right way. Hopefully, that means we will see more global cooperation and research that supports music therapy.

As of today, there is not a lot of cooperation on researching music therapy on the global stage. However, music therapy is practiced all over the globe in different ways!

western music therapist playing guitar for a patient
Music therapy will often consist of a music therapist playing music for their patient!

Music Therapy in the West

Much of the Anglosphere Has Advanced Music Therapy Programs

In the United States, there is wide approval of music therapy, which means music therapy plays a substantial role in modern medicine. In fact, there is a whole slew of diseases and conditions that music therapy has shown positive outcomes for in the US. These include dementia, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, parkinson’s disease, cancer, Autism Spectrum Disorder, mood and anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, pain management, and substance use disorders.

Most music therapists in the US work with patients of all ages. Everybody from kids with autism to seniors with dementia can benefit from music therapy in the good ol' USA.

You will find a similar application of music therapy and music therapy techniques in other western nations, places like the UK and Australia. In the UK, music therapists work in a wide range of medical, social care, and educational settings across the country. They aim to maximize opportunities for vulnerable children, improve mental wellbeing in adults, and provide care for the growing number of retirees in the UK who are suffering from dementia. Like music therapy in the US, music therapy programs in the United Kingdom are quite expansive today. They feature programs to help provide care for their citizens no matter their age or status.

Australia also happens to have a dedicated music therapy association, which strives to promote the use of music therapy across the medical setting and to produce research and publications on the efficacies of music therapy. The association also dedicates resources to educating people about music therapy and helps match licensed music therapists with a great career for them. Taken as a whole, this really makes the music therapy association in Australia one of the best in the world. Not only do they do important work supporting patients, they also give support to caregivers and music therapists themselves!

south americans in traditional native garb playing music, a form of group music therapy
Some form of music therapy exists in almost every culture in some form or another!

Music Therapy in Latin America

How Music Therapy Is Being Used to Combat Addiction

Music therapy has been used in Latin America since the 1950s. In particular, Argentina and Brazil were early adopters of music therapy in the region, but now 13 Latin American countries widely offer some sort of music therapy. In recent years, music therapy has been widely used to treat substance abuse disorders in South America.

Even though the US is still sticking to its “war on drugs,” many South American countries are looking for new ways to combat addiction within their communities. Music therapy has proven to be an effective tool in the battle against addiction for many people within their borders. One way that music therapy helps battle addiction is by providing an outlet for self-expression and emotional displays. By having a safe place to work through their feelings and emotions, addicts struggle less with their complicated feelings and feel less of an urge to relapse.

But of course, music therapy in Latin America isn’t just tied to addiction recovery -- there is a whole range of other ways music therapy is applied in the region.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and unique things about music therapy in different cultures is how the types of music most prevalent in that culture informs the type of music used in music therapy sessions. The music in a Latin American music therapy session can be quite different from the music played by an American or South Korean music therapist! These unique forms of music tend to be effective for the patients because it is a style of music to which they are already accustomed. They don’t have to try and find their balance in a whole new genre or style. The point is for the music to feel familiar, comforting, and safe.

two young asian boys sitting on a dock, one playing a reed flute the other playing violin
Music therapy has been shown to be an effective tool across cultural and language barriers!

Music Therapy in Asia

The Many Distinct Cultures of Asia Provide Unique Music Therapy Across the Region

In Singapore, there are “silent discos” that are designed to help elderly patients suffering with dementia. One of the ways that music therapy helps patients with dementia is by contributing to a holistic approach to care that targets improving their mood, behavior, and cognition. Since music stimulates many specialized areas of the brain, it can go a long way in improving memory and even speech. By setting up these silent discos where all the dementia patients wear headphones and listen to popular music from their youth, they are able to positively impact their mood as well as their memory. Since Singapore's first silence disco opened in 2019, an impressive 10 more locations have been opened up across the 281 square mile country.

Hopping over to another Asian nation, a unique program by Park and Kim in South Korea utilized music therapy in the education of patients who have diabetes. The patients learned relaxation techniques and participated in singing, song writing, improvisation, and exercise. After a 3 month follow up, the results showed that combining songwriting with diabetes education helped the individuals in the study maintain better awareness of their condition and were more actively participating in their education

Music therapy developed rapidly in Japan during the 1990s and early 2000s. As such, the recognition of music therapy as a legitimate medical tool has risen in the public's mind. However, this rapid expansion of music therapy has left Japan in a bit of a unique situation where they need to be producing results that are commensurate with the amount of music therapy available for people. And at a time when more and more people in Japan are becoming aware of the importance of their mental health, there is a prime opportunity in Japan for music therapy to play a role in mitigating stress and anxiety in the population as well as battling a wide variety of mental health disorders. Music therapy has already been proven to work for these kinds of ailments in the west and in other parts of Asia, so now is a really interesting time to be watching how music therapy in Japan will evolve over the next decade to meet the demands of its population.

woman seated on the ground playing guitar
Music therapy can be a useful tool for patients of all ages!

While music therapy is utilized differently in different places, the positive impact it has on participants remains the same.

Music therapy has a wide range of different applications, but one often overlooked feature is that it can be a powerful tool to build bridges between our cultures. While there has been limited international cooperation in researching music therapy, the recent meeting in Seoul of over 1,4000 music therapy professionals is certainly a step in the right direction. Hopefully, this is an indication of more cooperation in the future.

There are universal truths that are addressed and expressed through music therapy that can be meaningful to all of us. When music therapists from all over the globe are able to share their findings, the field is sure to develop rapidly, and perhaps some of the music therapies used in other cultures will become normal tools in other countries. Already, music therapy has proven to be a valuable tool in combating all sorts of medical conditions. More research and international cooperation will only help increase the effectiveness and application of music therapy across cultures!

Anthony Stockton
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