When did Music Therapy Start?

Diving into the history of Music Therapy practice.

Music therapy, or some form of it, has been around for centuries. Where did it start? Who started it? It has been practiced across cultures and with hundreds of different approaches, each with their own purpose and belief system. Continue reading if you want to learn more about the origins of music therapy and why it is a valued practice. 

an old clock tower
The idea of using music for healing and therapeutic practices goes all the way back to the time of Aristotle. 

How Old is Music Therapy?

The idea of using music for healing and changing health and behavior certainly goes as far back as the writings of Aristotle and Plato. In some cultures, (like Egyptian and Chinese) it goes back even farther. The earliest known reference to music therapy appeared in the late 18th century in an article in Columbian Magazine called "Music Physically Considered." In the early 19th century, writings on the healing powers of music came up in two medical dissertations, one written by Edwin Atlee in 1804 and another written by Samuel Mathews in 1806. What Atlee and Mathews had in common was that they were both students of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician and psychiatrist who believed in using music to treat physical health problems. 

The 19th century was also when the first psychological intervention that used music therapy was noted. It took place at Blackwell’s Island in New York. The 19th century also saw the first known experiment using music therapy for mental health, where a psychiatrist used music to change the dream states of patients during therapy. 



The idea of using music to benefit the functions or state of the human body is notable in early Egyptian texts. 


Music Therapy and the Ancient World

The idea of music therapy goes back thousands of years. Music was suggested as a way to benefit the human body in ancient Egyptian medical texts that date back as far as 1500 BCE. Greco-Roman, Arabian, Indian, and Chinese traditions of learned medicine incorporate various notions of music, used for a therapeutic purpose. There are also stories and quotes in mythological and biblical texts that reference music therapy. 

Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato were all greek philosophers, and they are known as some of the earliest to acknowledge and use the healing power of music. Pythagoras believed that music was connected to mathematics, and  could serve as an expression of something deeper. He explored how differing combinations of melodies either played on instruments, or sung, could influence mood. 

Following Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle created a system based around music, and established four ideas behind music. These ideas were:

  • Moving 
  • Giving pleasure
  • Creating moral virtue
  • Creating intellectual development.


Plato also believed that music communes directly with the soul, and that music can provide virtue and spirituality into our lives. He believed that this was the primary purpose of music, over pleasure or enjoyment. 



a black record
Music therapy as a practice surged in the 20th century as a result of the World Wars and the observed benefits of music on the wounded. 

Music Therapy and the 20th Century 

A growing interest in music therapy was perceived during the 20th century, which resulted in the  assembly of several music therapy associations, none of which lasted very long. In 1903, the National Society of Musical Therapeutics was founded by Eva Augusta Vescelius. Isa Maud Ilsen founded the National Association for Music in Hospitals in 1926. Harriet Ayer Seymour founded the National Foundation of Music Therapy in 1941.These organizations are notable for their contributions in the field by providing the first journals, books, and classes on music therapy. Despite this, they were not able to turn into an organized science- based profession.

Music therapy began to be more widely used and accepted in both World War I and World War II. Professional and volunteer musicians would offer their services to wounded, sick, or mentally ill soldiers suffering from trauma . The patients' physical and emotional responses to music were extreme and notable, and led the doctors and nurses to continue requesting musicians’ presence in hospitals. From this, it became apparent that some of the hospital musicians could benefit from prior training, and a push to create a college program based in music therapy was kicked off. 

In the 1940s, three people emerged as innovators and key players in the development of music therapy as an organized clinical profession. Willem van de Wall kickstarted the use of music therapy in government-funded facilities and wrote the first "how to" music therapy text, Music in Institutions, in 1936.  Psychiatrist and music therapist Ira Altshuler, MD touted the benefits of music therapy in Michigan for thirty years. E. Thayer Gaston, also known as the "father of music therapy," was very important in moving the profession forward in terms of providing organization and education to help it develop. The first music therapy college programs also came to be in the 1940s, the first being started at Michigan State University in 1944. Other universities followed shortly after, including the University of Kansas, Chicago Musical College, College of the Pacific, and Alverno College.


Music therapy has long been used to alleviate pain and suffering. Knowing how ancient of a practice music therapy is, and how far it has come since its beginnings in the past, really emphasizes the power of the practice. This also provides hope for the future. If music therapy has grown and progressed since the ancient world, who’s to say what it can accomplish in the future? As time progresses, music therapy will only become more valued, especially in use with children and young adults. 


Edited by Cara Jernigan on February 20, 2021. 

Macie Gelb
Macie Gelb is a writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.
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