Welcome to the third post in the Why Music Therapy Works series! If you like this post, be sure to check out the other posts in the series!

Everyone is susceptible to mental health issues.  The National Institute of Mental Health estimated that over 4% of the adult population in the US suffers from a Serious Mental Illness, and just over 50% of children ages 8-15 receive mental health services. These people aren’t limited to low socioeconomic status, or those with other disabilities. The number of those afflicted include doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, rich and poor, and all races.

Mental Health diagnoses include illnesses like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse to name a few.

Music therapy has a long history with mental health. Much of the early music therapy research pertains to individuals with mental health complaints, and it is still an active areas of practice and research today.

So, why does music therapy work for those suffering mental health issues?

Music Takes Place in Reality: The most common definition of music that I have heard is that music is “organization of sound in time and space”. By this definition, music is a temporal event. Once the last note fades, it is over and gone. For those suffering psychotic symptoms that involve an inability to orient to time, place, event or person, music provides an opportunity to become oriented. In listening to and participating in music and music making, a person cannot be disoriented and successful or aware.

Music is a Language We All Know: For those with mental illness, the ability to express themselves is often limited . It could be because they are not ready to discuss a topic, are unable to due to impairments, or any other number of reasons that are determinant by the client. Music, being a language that we all understand provides a non threatening avenue for them to explore those feelings. Clients in a group setting can explore and share through improvisation. Those dealing with anger may beat a drum as hard as they can. Traumatic events may be reenacted (safely) through music when words aren’t ready to be used. The possibilities for music to be used in this capacity is endless, and will change based on the client’s experience as well as the therapist’s experience and expertise.

Music is a Social Activity: Similar to the discussion above about music taking place in reality, music also is inherently social. In order to be successful at music making, one has to be able to be aware of and in sync with their peers. At an even higher level like group song writing, team work skills come into play as the group decides upon instrumentation, words, melodies, and more. Because music is something we all understand, differences in the group are able to be overcome and compromised upon. Members of opposing gangs work together, persons who are convinced others are targeting them work with the suspected on lyrics, and the person who normally sits back and doesn’t participate pushes the group to work quickly and efficiently.

Music Gives Us Something to Talk About: Asking a table full of persons with substance abuse issues to sit down and verbally discuss why the use seldom goes well. You may have a person who takes over the conversation. You may have a person who makes sarcastic and rude remarks. You may have difficulty getting the group on the topic at all. Utilizing a tool like lyric analysis gives the group the opportunity to have something concrete to discuss. It lays out the boundaries of the discussion and provides an excellent resource to help mediate, guide, and encourage conversation. Many people don’t want to sit and discuss their feelings with a stranger. By providing the framework of music, often clients will find themselves comfortable discussing their own situations in relation to the song.

This has been a brief look into why music therapy works in mental health settings. Please share your thoughts, experiences, or other resources in the comments!


Merikangas KR, He JP, Brody D, Fisher PW, Bourdon K, Koretz DS. Prevalence and treatment of mental disorders among US children in the 2001-2004 NHANES. Pediatrics. 2010, 125(1):75-81

Montello, L.M., & Coons, E.E. (1998). Effect of active versus passive group music therapy on preadolescents with emotional, learning, and behavioral disorders. Journal of Music Therapy, 35, 49-67.

Silverman, M.J. The Influence of Music on the Symptoms of Psychosis: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Music Therapy 2003; XL(1) 27-40.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2007). Results from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-32, DHHS Publication No. SMA 07-4293). Rockville, MD.