Music Therapy Jumped in Popularity Over COVID-- Is it Here to Stay?

Music therapy rose in popularity during the pandemic. What does this say about the field moving forward?

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 turned the world upside down, altering the way of life of millions across the globe-- often for good. So much has changed in the three years that have followed-- how we react to illness, how we work, how we interact with others, how we handle loneliness.

In the face of all this change, music therapy jumped in popularity during the height of the pandemic. Hospitals saw a drastic increase in patients seeking music therapy treatment-- such as at M Health Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital, where requests for music therapy treatment nearly doubled during the pandemic.

Even outside of medical centers and hospitals, people started using and interacting with music differently during the COVID pandemic. Music was suddenly a means of alleviating the stresses of social isolation or of modulating emotions in the face of often-grave health concerns.

Three years later, most countries have largely adapted to the existence of COVID-19 as part of their citizens' daily lives. But what has the pandemic done for the popularity and application of music therapy-- and will music therapy continue to rise in popularity in the future?

We think it will-- and there are plenty of reasons why.

The Social Effects of COVID-19

An elderly woman looks at a child through a window
The COVID pandemic turned communities everywhere upside down. Image courtesy of USAToday.

Most of us are well aware that the COVID pandemic was catastrophic for governments, businesses, and individuals everywhere. As governments scrambled to slow the spread of the virus, businesses struggled to remain open-- especially small businesses, many of which were already struggling without the added stresses of a global pandemic.

Millions of people found themselves stuck at home for weeks or months on end, trapped in a state of constant uncertainty over whether they would lose their jobs at any given moment. Schools resorted to teaching through online programs, accidentally leaving poor or special needs students in the dust in the process. “Essential” workers-- particularly medical professionals-- were suddenly dangerously understaffed, at a constant health risk, and more stressed than ever.

The social impact of the pandemic, especially, was a sight to behold. Human beings are fundamentally social beings-- and now, everyone was explicitly told to avoid social gatherings or risk the lives of themselves and their loved ones. With everyone stuck at home, away from friends and family, to stew over possible health and financial problems, mental health problems like anxiety and depression rose by 25% worldwide.

With all of these problems piling onto everyone’s shoulders, people needed somewhere to turn to alleviate their stress. One of the most popular solutions, for many, was music and music therapy.

Turning to Music and Music Therapy

A woman in a mask sits on the sidewalk, listening to music with headphones
People started interacting with music differently during the pandemic-- frequently using it as a form of self-therapy. Image courtesy of Forbes.

In the midst of all of the changes of the pandemic, studies have found that many people changed how they interacted with music. Although in-person music therapy became extremely difficult to administer in most cases, since therapists and doctors had to social distance themselves as much as possible, many still found ways to use music to improve their lives.

For example, famous musicians took to posting performances online and on social media sites under the hashtag “#SongsOfComfort” in an attempt to reach out to others who were struggling through this time. The phenomenon of “Coronamusic” developed as people sought to express their fears and experiences during the pandemic by writing and performing their own music.

Non-musicians took to relying more on music, too. Those who found themselves struggling mentally used their music playlists to help them manage their negative emotions, like depression and anxiety. For those whose biggest struggle was the lack of social connection that the pandemic made necessary, music was often used as an actual substitute for social interaction.

Virtual support groups also rose in popularity during COVID, including one started by Tom Sweitzer after recovering from the virus himself. Sweitzer, seeing how much the people around him needed support, decided to put his skills as a music therapist to use in an unconventional way-- unlike traditional music therapy, which is usually administered in person, his support group met via Zoom to practice breathing exercises, listen to music, and sing together and lift their moods.

Music Therapy in the Future

A child in a hospital bed plays a xylophone while a man next to her plays guitar
Researchers’ understanding of the application of technology to music therapy has grown since COVID. Image courtesy of Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

For most of its history, music therapy has been defined as in-person therapeutic intervention, during which a music therapist and patient work to accomplish individual goals through music. Music therapy has always tended to prioritize live music, live singing, and real instruments as major contributors to its effectiveness. And, to be sure, there is a lot to be said for live therapy and live music-- it provides an intimate experience that is difficult to replicate in isolation.

But in-person music therapy became difficult or, sometimes, impossible during the pandemic-- outside of hospital settings, most people did not have access to in-person therapy of any type. Yet music, even when it didn’t involve real instruments or live singing, still proved extremely useful to many people.

This has led music therapists and researchers to conclude that in-person music therapy is not the only way to administer treatment. Technology has the potential to open up new doors for people seeking music therapy everywhere. Music streaming services have become extremely popular, and most music therapists have used these services during their interventions at some point or another since COVID. Even better, Zoom and other video call services have made music therapy more accessible for those who have Internet access but lack the ability to travel for therapy.

Researchers are now investigating how technology can be further used in music therapy to make it accessible to even more people. For patients whose motor abilities are impaired or who cannot play traditional instruments, software like AUMI, or Adaptive Use Musical Instruments, allows them to find a way to make music regardless. Neurofeedback technology can also help movement-impaired patients make music, while those whose speech abilities are impaired can use technology to express themselves audibly. There are plenty of other types of accessibility-focused technology out there that can help patients in music therapy-- these are only a few of the possibilities.

As technology continues to develop-- including communication technology, music streaming services, and medical technology-- the field of music therapy grows in its accessibility and applications for patients on all walks of life.

So-- Will it Stick Around?

A woman playing a stringed instrument on a video call
Music therapy will continue to grow in popularity as its accessibility and applications grow. Image courtesy of Find Your Voice Music Therapy.

Music therapy has been increasing in popularity for a long time, as music becomes more accessible via streaming services and live performances and its physical and mental benefits become clearer. But its rise to relevancy during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly seems to have cemented it as a widely-recognized field that has, in one way or another, helped many people through one of the hardest periods of their lives.

Since so many people have come to associate music and music therapy with positive effects on mental health and physical health, it seems very likely that it will maintain its popularity moving forward. This is definitely helped by the flexibility that therapists worldwide displayed during the pandemic and afterward in incorporating technology into their treatment plans to make music therapy more accessible to everyone.

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