Music Therapy and Mental Health

What is Music Therapy and How Does It Work for Mental Health?

Music therapy is an allied healthcare profession. It uses the therapeutic potentials of music to create meaningful change, development, and growth. It can be useful in a variety of healthcare settings, including mental health. On this page, you’ll get to learn more about music therapy, including music therapy for mental health.

In this video, I describe a bit more about what music therapy is and why it works:

Music Therapy for Mental Health

Music therapy for mental health is something that I’m passionate about because mental health is an important aspect of well-being. Yet it also often gets overlooked. This might be because people think that there isn’t a problem. For some people, it may be difficult to find the words to talk about what’s going on. And still, others may have a bias against therapy. It’s for all these reasons that music therapy can be a meaningful way to address mental health.

What Music Is

To further understand how music therapy works, it’s also important to understand what music is. A basic definition is that music is a combination of vocal or instrumental sounds. This can result in experiences of beauty and harmony.

But such a definition doesn’t fully capture what music is and how a person experiences it. This is because how one experiences music is subjective. Personal preferences have an effect on how a person responds to music. Music therapists understand this. They don’t view music as a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach.

A basket of percussion instruments you might use in a music therapy session for mental health

The Elements of Music

Several elements form the building blocks of music. These elements include:

  • Rhythm refers to beat, meter, tempo, and syncopation. It involves the duration of sound through time.
  • Dynamics relates to the loudness or softness of the music and how it’s played. They can change gradually or be sudden.
  • Melody is the linear arrangement of pitches. It is the part of the song that one usually sings or hums.
  • Harmony happens when pitches come together. It is because of harmony that a piece of music has a sense of tonal “home.”
  • Tone Color, or timbre, involves the sound of instruments and the range they’re played in. For example, the voice sounds different than a piano. Likewise, a woman’s voice sounds different than a man’s.

How Is Music Used in Music Therapy?

So with this better understanding of music, let’s now look at how music is used in music therapy. This can be understood in a few ways. That’s because there’s a difference between the actual musical activity and the purpose of its use.

Let’s first look at the purpose behind music-based experiences. For example, music can be part of assessing needs. This contributes to the development of a treatment plan. The other purpose, of course, is to address needs with and through music. This is part of the execution of the treatment plan.


As a therapist, it’s important to know about a person’s personal background and needs. This is because such knowledge informs the treatment plan and therapeutic approach. It also leads to a better understanding of who a client is. People are complex and our relationships with music can be complex, too.

Part of assessing includes understanding how a person responds to music or sounds. For example, someone with sensory processing challenges will perceive sounds differently. Additionally, the way they approach and play instruments may be different. Likewise, someone who was told growing up that they “couldn’t sing” or were “tone deaf” may feel reluctant to sing. All of this is relevant information for a music therapist to have when figuring out how to approach addressing the therapeutic needs.

Additionally, tempo and dynamics can sonically represent how a person feels inside. Someone who plays fast may be feeling anxious or nervous. Whereas someone playing slowly or softly may be feeling depressed or withdrawn. Likewise forceful playing could represent anger or a need for increased sensory input.


From assessment, we move on to addressing the therapeutic needs. Again, how music gets used depends on what those needs are. For example, a rhythm activity may help someone who feels stuck or needs help feeling grounded. This may be the case for someone struggling with feelings of anxiety. Yet, for someone struggling with self-confidence, singing may be helpful.

Addressing a Person’s Comfort Level

Furthermore, a person’s individual comfort level determines how we use music. Sometimes a person may feel uncomfortable because the music feels overwhelming. It can make them feel too vulnerable or too exposed. This can be especially true if one has negative views of themselves as a music-maker or musician.

In cases like this, I work with clients to find a way to still address the therapeutic need. This can involve identifying something else musical that they feel comfortable doing. And sometimes it can involve no music at all. This because there is no pressure for people to have to incorporate music into their therapeutic work.

However, in other situations, a person has their own idea of what they want to do. For example, they may want to play the guitar rather than the drum. If what they want to do still allows for the need to be met, we’ll go with it. Afterall, just because I’m the therapist, doesn’t mean that I’m always right. Therapeutic change requires willingness and buy-in from the client.

Yet, there are also times when the therapeutic need requires that I set some boundaries. A client may want to do something that I’m not willing to let them do. It could be something I’m not willing to let them do now or ever. This comes up when working with kids who may need more boundaries and limits. In these cases, I set a limit and afterward we may go back to their preferred activity.

Types of Musical Activities Used in Music Therapy

So now let’s look at the actual musical activities that can be used in music therapy. In general, there are two categories of musical activities. They are active music and receptive music.

Active music involves things such as:

  • Playing an instrument
  • Vocalizing
  • Song-writing

Receptive music involves things such as:

  • Guided meditation or relaxation with music
  • Lyric analysis
  • Creating meaningful playlists in order to motivate, inspire, and reflect

How Is Music Used in Music Therapy for Mental Health?

In this video, I describe a bit more about how I use active and receptive music in the music therapy work I do in mental health:

Using Music Therapy for Mental Health and Well-Being

By now you may be wondering about some ways I address mental health needs through music therapy. Below are some ways I help people get in “tune” with their mental health and well-being. I find them to be valuable skills for people to have at any age. Likewise, these skills are beneficial to a variety of mental health conditions. This includes depression, anxiety, and trauma. Read on to learn more.


Develop Self-Understanding

Music therapy can help improve your ability to self-regulate. This is because music-based experiences can calm your nervous system and foster attunement. As a result, you can be better able to identify what it is that you need to regain balance. Additionally, you can learn how to identify things that trigger you.

Some ways that music therapy does this is by helping you to:

  • Tune into your present moment experience
  • Attune to your own needs
  • Identify and express your emotions
  • Gather clarity of your thoughts

Executive Functioning Skills

Develop Attention and Focus

In our high distraction world, it’s easy to lose the ability to focus and pay attention. Music therapy can help you develop executive functioning skills, such as:

  • Motivation
  • Focus
  • Sustained Attention

This makes music therapy especially beneficial for young children and teens. This is because they are still developing these skills. Learn more about how I help children and teens here.

At the same time, even adults can benefit from working on these areas. You can learn more about how I work with adults here and older adults here.

Resilience and Transformation

Create Personal Meaning

Music therapy can help people create meaning and purpose in their lives. This is because it can help you move through your pain in order to find your personal meaning. Creating meaning and purpose in life helps foster resilience. And as one becomes more resilient, the more they transform into who they really are.

Those who may need this kind of support those who are:

  • Experiencing grief or some life transition
  • Have experienced some sort of traumatic event. This includes trauma that is preverbal, developmental, or situational.
  • Want to Enhance Your Mental Health with Music Therapy?

    If you’d like to know more, you can schedule a free 15-minute telephone or online consultation here. With this consultation, we can talk more about your situation and what you need. This will allow me to see how I might be able to help you.