The History of Music Therapy

What is music therapy, when was it invented, and how does one get into the field?

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

It is becoming increasingly well known that music therapy is a form of mental and physical therapy that helps many people recover. But, what many people do not know is the history of music therapy, what it is really used for, and what the future looks like for the industry. We are going to dive into what started music therapy, why it is important, who can be a music therapist and what the future looks like for the field. Keep reading!

Woman playing a ukulele.

Music therapy can help everyone in different ways, but specifically can help groups such as children with trouble communicating and military service members, among others. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is the clinical use of music to work patients towards some sort of goal, whether it be psychological therapy for mental health, aiding in the recovery of physical ailments (like lowering blood pressure, for example), managing pain for patients with chronic illnesses, and much more. 

Music therapists work with anyone that needs help, but some specific groups that they often work with are military service members, veterans, senior citizens, people in correctional facilities, substance abusers, children with difficulty communicating, and a variety of other people who have or had medical and psychological issues. 

Music therapy can take place in a variety of places– at schools, nursing homes, hospital settings, or home. Music therapy does not always have to be done by a professional, either. Although clinical music therapy is done by a certified music therapist, music can be therapy on its own in many ways. It can be used as a mood enhancer, something to calm people down or hype them up. Different types of music have different effects on everyone, which makes it much more interesting and unique to each person who listens. This is why music therapy is so important. 

But, music therapy is not just about listening to the music. It also involves learning how to play instruments, and learning about the inner workings of each instrument. Music therapy can be conducting, singing, composing, or anything else involving the realm of music. This is why it is personalized to each patient in a way that other types of therapy cannot be. These activities can help to promote brain function, help with memory, and help to release emotions that may not have been able to be expressed in any other way. 

Child with headphones on

Music has always been a form of therapy, but it was not practiced as a form of clinical therapy until 1806. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

The history of music therapy

In most cultures, throughout all of history, music has been used as a form of medicine. It brings people together, it helps people to express their emotions, it’s proven to make people smarter, and it can make us feel things– good or bad. The earliest reference to music therapy was in 1798 in an article published in The Columbian, titled “Music Physically Considered.” It was not until 1806 that doctors really started to recognize the benefits of music as a form of medical treatment. 

In the early 1900s, various organizations were formed with the same thought in all of their minds– music heals. Although, unfortunately, almost all of those organizations did not make it through the changing times. This was also around the same time that the first scientific experiments involving music therapy were conducted at Blackwell’s Island, New York. They were experimenting on the effects that music and music therapy had on a patient when they were sleeping, and trying to understand how it would affect their dreams. 

The American Music Therapy Association was formed in 1998 after merging with the National Association for Music Therapy and the American Association for Music Therapy. It was formed with the mission of advancing public knowledge of the benefits of music as a form of therapy, and increasing access to these sorts of services. 

The keys of a piano

Music therapists are in school for four or more years before getting certified. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

How does someone become a music therapist?

To be a certified music therapist, a person has to get their Bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy or similar field. In addition to this, they need many hours of clinical training to get their certification, and many schools require an internship prior to graduation. Individuals studying in this field also have to take an exam after graduation that is administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.  

The coursework in Music Therapy is unique because it partners a degree in music with a degree in psychology. This crossover creates a creative mind’s paradise. In the music portion of the classes, future music therapists must go through all of the general music degree coursework– music theory, music fundamentals, aural skills, and many other courses important to their field of work. But, they are also expected to take science classes to align with that portion of their degree, as well. 

Many music therapists also go back to school for a Masters or Doctorate degree, which can be helpful if they want to move up in the field at a quicker rate, teach, or have the ability to make more money. When they get to that point, the options become more diverse for where they can work and what they are doing with their degrees. 

Piano in a therapist's office next to a chair and multiple potted plants.

The future of music therapy is bright because as our knowledge on the way the brain is affected by music increases, the need for music therapy grows larger. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

What does the future of music therapy look like?

As the world develops further into an online society, and technology only becomes more prevalent, music therapy continues to adapt. There are methods to conduct music therapy online and in person, per the patient’s preference. 

In addition to this, the future opens up an entirely new world for music therapy because our understanding of the human body and the way the brain works can only get better with time. As doctors and therapists continue to study the effect that music has on the brain, music therapy will only grow bigger and more popular. 

In the future, many more patients will opt into alternative therapies to help them mentally and physically. Turning to alternative therapies, such as music therapy or art therapy, help patients  use a different side of their brain to help them express emotions and overcome trauma. Especially within the psychological music therapy realm, the future looks bright for this field of work. 

Music therapy is something that many patients do not think about first when they are searching for a treatment method. But, with the increase in musicians wanting to help people in the medical field, the music therapy field is just starting to blossom in ways that its founders never thought imaginable. Today, we are seeing changes that are helping to get the word out about music therapy, and its variety of ways of helping people mentally and physically.

Savannah Dawson
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