Music Therapy and Mental Health

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

Music therapy is an allied healthcare profession. As a profession, it uses the therapeutic potentials of music to create meaningful change, development, and growth. The versatility and accessibility of music allow music therapy to be part of a wide range of settings, including mental health. On this page, you can 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:

Why Use Music Therapy to Address Mental Health Concerns?

Mental health is a vital aspect of well-being. Yet, it can often be easy to overlook the impact our mental health plays. Some people may deny the impact that their mental health has on them. They may know that they don’t feel well, but they don’t connect those feelings to their mental health. And there are still others who may feel overwhelmed by the idea of having to talk to someone about their experiences.

Using music therapy to address mental health concerns can be a powerful way for people to engage in therapy. That is because music therapy can:

  • Provide people with non-verbal ways of expressing themselves so that they can express what needs to be expressed without having to use words
  • Be motivating and inspiring, even if the therapeutic process itself may sometimes feel hard
  • Help people tap into their inner creativity and sense of playfulness so that they can experience more of who they are

What Music Is

To further understand how music therapy works, it’s also worth understanding what music is and how it affects us. A basic definition is that music is a combination of vocal or instrumental sounds that results in the “beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

But this doesn’t fully capture the nuances of what music is and how a person experiences it. Several elements make up music.

The Elements of Music

These elements are rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, and tone color. 

  • Rhythm refers to beat, meter, tempo, and syncopation. It involves the duration of sound through time.
  • Dynamics relates to how loud or how soft the music is. They can change gradually or change suddenly.
  • Melody involves the linear arrangement of pitches. It is the part of the song that one usually sings or hums because it is “catchy.”
  • Harmony is what happens when pitches come together. It adds fullness to the music, and it is the harmony that gives a piece of music has a sense of “tonal home.”
  • Tone Color, or timbre, are the unique sounds of instruments and their musical ranges. For example, the voice sounds different than a piano. Likewise, while their ranges overlap some, they are also different.

Music therapists utilize and modify these elements to support therapeutic change. That is because, as it turns out, our brains and bodies are designed to respond to music. It can affect our breathing, influence movement, and prompt speech, in addition to the ways music can affect us emotionally, mentally, and existentially.

One’s Subjective Experience of Music

However, these responses aren’t universally the same. How one experiences music is subjective. Every person’s response to music is different because every person is different. As such, people have different musical preferences. Past associations that a person may have to certain songs or sounds also are a factor. Another factor that influences how a person experiences music is their unique sensory and nervous system.

In other words, everyone is unique, and this influences their relationship to music. Music therapists understand this. That is because we know how music impacts people holistically. We use music to meet people where they are and support them towards therapeutic growth.

How Is Music Used in Music Therapy?

There are two ways you can understand the use of music in music therapy. The first way is to look at the actual musical activity itself. The second way is to look at the purpose or intention behind the music-based experiences.

Let’s look at the second way first. Part of what makes music therapy unique is that there is a purpose behind the music-based experiences. As healthcare providers, music therapists assess and devise treatment plans. From this, they can identify ways to use music to address the therapeutic need(s).


In addition to the traditional aspects of assessment, part of the assessment in music therapy 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.

The messages that a person has received and internalized about their musical or creative abilities will also have an impact. Such information is relevant for a music therapist in better understanding who a person is. While music is often seen as something to enjoy, we can have complex relationships to it.

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


From assessment, we move on to addressing the therapeutic needs through the development of a treatment plan. 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. That may be the case for someone struggling with feelings of anxiety. Yet, for someone struggling with self-confidence, singing may be helpful.

Types of Musical Activities Used in Music Therapy

Now let’s look more closely at the types of musical activities you might experience 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 Therapy Used In 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:

Some Mental Health Needs I Address Through Music Therapy

By now, you may be wondering about some of the specific mental health needs I address 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 because they are important regardless of how old you are. Likewise, these skills are beneficial to a variety of mental health conditions. These include depression, anxiety, and trauma. Read on to learn more.


Develop Self-Understanding

Music therapy can help improve your ability to self-regulate. That is because music-based experiences can calm your nervous system and foster attunement. As a result, you can learn 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

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 who 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 Growth

Create Personal Meaning

Music therapy can help people create meaning and purpose in their lives. It can help you move through your pain so that you can find your meaning. Creating meaning and purpose in life helps foster resilience. And as one becomes more resilient, the more they grow and transform into who they 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 want to know more, you can schedule a free 15-minute consultation here. With this consultation, we can talk more about your situation and what you need. From there, we can determine if the services I offer can help you or someone you know.