Music Therapy

There are a number of treatment interventions that are not considered to be primary forms of treatment for different types of mental health disorders, including substance use disorders.
 
These are often referred to as complementary and integrative treatments.

These interventions can assist in the treatment of specific types of issues but are not designed to be the primary forms of treatment or be used as the sole form of treatment for these issues. There are numerous treatments that are designated as complementary and integrative therapies, and one of these is music therapy.

Music Therapy

bigstock-145472144Music is a very important aspect of the daily lives of most people. People use music as a form of entertainment, relaxation, distraction, and as an accompaniment to enhance their lives. In addition, many people use music as a means of motivating themselves to reach goals or perform daily activities.

Music is often linked to the production of emotional states in people, and depending on the music and the person, the effects can increase an individual’s energy, make them happy, and even make them sad. Music in this context can be therapeutic, meaning that it can serve a healing or integrative function for a person. In addition, when applied by a trained professional, music can actually be a form of therapy. When music is used in the form of music therapy, it is designed to be a complementary intervention that can enhance the effects of other primary interventions. As a form of therapy, music must also be used by someone formally trained in therapy and particularly in music therapy to reach some set of goals or end purpose.


Music therapy is a formal recognized type of therapy where music is used to assist an individual in their treatment.


Music might be used with rehabilitative therapy, such as physical therapy and occupational therapy, or it may be used in the formal treatment of individuals with substance use disorders to assist them in looking deeper into themselves and understanding their own motivations and mood states.

Music therapy has formal goals and formal techniques, and music therapists are trained in these. Individuals can also use music for their own benefit; however, when music is used without the assistance of a formally trained music therapist, it is not a form of music therapy even though the music may have beneficial or therapeutic effects. The difference between something being therapeutic and formal therapy is very specific. All types of personal experiences can be “therapeutic” and result in people learning about themselves or resolving emotional issues whereas formal therapy is a structured form of intervention that is induced by a licensed, trained, professional.

Music therapy has a number of benefits and an established body of empirical evidence to indicate that it can be useful in assisting in the treatment of a number of very difficult and challenging conditions. Some of these include:

  • Autistic spectrum disorder: Autistic spectrum disorder includes a number of developmental disorders that are typically diagnosed in young children. ASD is considered to be a neurological disorder, meaning that individuals have some type of dysfunction in their brain that leads to deficits in their behavior. People who have ASD often have issues with verbal expression, difficulty meeting developmental milestones, problems in social behavior, and other behavioral issues. Many of these individuals have limited cognitive capacity (but not all of them). Often, people with ASD are difficult to manage and may be very responsive to music therapy. Music therapy in conjunction with other traditional forms of intervention is often used to enhance the communication abilities of those with ASD and assist them in learning new skills and developing social skills.
  • Dementia: Dementia is not a specific disease or disorder but a term that refers to a number of different conditions that are associated with a primary decline in the person’s cognitive functioning, most often memory. Condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, certain types of strokes, and even conditions like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease may have dementia feature in their presentation. For most, the primary symptom of dementia is a declining memory followed by a number of other declining cognitive skills. Often, individuals with more severe forms of dementia become very agitated and difficult to deal with, and the use of music therapy can decrease agitation, enhance mood, and help retain some of their basic cognitive skills. However, music therapy will not reverse the symptoms of serious conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders: People with major depressive disorder or anxiety disorders may experience debilitating symptoms that significantly interfere with everyday functioning. These individuals often require combinations of medication and therapy. Music therapy has been demonstrated to increase the individual’s responsiveness to primary forms of treatment for these disorders. When administered by a trained therapist, it can also help to elevate mood, develop more positive outlooks, and bring relaxation. 

How Is Music Therapy Beneficial for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders?

religion and recoveryOne of the benefits of using music therapy is it can be used in nearly any context. It can be applied in intensive inpatient treatment programs, on an outpatient basis, in a group situation, and in nearly any other form of formal intervention. Music therapy can be applied to the treatment of substance use disorders to ease stress, help people relax, increase focus on recovery, and help individuals who are having difficulty adjusting to the demands of recovery from substance use disorders. Music therapy, when applied under the direction of a music therapist, has specific goals, and its application is used to reach these goals. However, individuals in recovery need not undergo a formal music therapy intervention program to benefit from the use of music. Music can be used privately to enhance mood, help one forget the stressors of the day, and as a distraction technique to deal with cravings and other issues that are commonly encountered in recovery. Regardless of the use of music as a formal form of therapy or as a private form of relaxation and enhancement of treatment, the use of music is not designed to be a substitute for a formal substance use disorder treatment program. It is designed to enhance the effects of these programs.

Because music therapy is a complementary treatment protocol, the music therapist will consult and actively work with the rest of the person’s treatment team to develop a formal therapeutic approach using music to address an individual’s specific needs. These particular goals might include:

  • Enhancing the person’s emotional adjustment
  • Improving physical health and mental wellbeing by relieving stress
  • Developing communication skills
  • Focusing on the development of particular aspects of cognitive functioning, such as attention or memory
  • Trying to enhance the person’s social functioning by getting them involved with others with similar music interests
When the music therapist addresses the specific needs of the individual, it is important to understand that the person being treated does not have to have any type of background or formal knowledge about music. The person simply needs to be responsive to music and to have a certain type of music they enjoy. This makes the application of music therapy quite broad. Music therapists need to consult with the individual and identify their individual needs. In substance use disorder treatment, clients may use music in a variety of ways. For example, they might use music to:

  • Deal with cravings, to reduce the effects of stressful situations, and to deal with issues of remorse or regret regarding decisions the person has made in the past when they were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Cope with negative emotions, such as guilt, anxiety, depression, or anger
  • Develop coping strategies to deal with future situations that may arise
  • Explore inner feelings regarding motivation or self-esteem
  • Enhance current mood or to relieve boredom

As a form of complementary and integrative therapy that has a quite extensive body of empirical evidence to suggest its treatment utility, music therapy is in contrast to many other forms of complementary therapies. The major benefits of music therapy are varied.

  • When people are in the early stages of a recovery program from a substance use disorder, they are often overwhelmed. Music therapy can be particularly useful in helping an individual deal with the emotional problems associated with these feelings of being overwhelmed and put them in perspective.
  • Music therapy can be useful in addressing triggers that often spark relapse in recovering individuals. These triggers include boredom, loneliness, stress, and self-doubt.
  • Often, individuals in recovery from substance use disorders have the mistaken belief that they will find nothing enjoyable in life without their substance of choice. The use of music therapy can help to correct this mistaken notion.
  • Music therapy positively addresses negative emotions, including issues with depression and anxiety. This can lead to individuals thinking more clearly and making better decisions.
  • Music therapy can also be used in conjunction with other forms of interventions to motivate the person to develop other positive changes in their lives, such as developing an exercise program, getting involved in community activities, learning to socialize with others, etc.

Music therapy is one of the better forms of complementary and integrative treatments available to individuals with substance use disorders. However, there are some considerations that should be made before getting a specific individual involved in a music therapy program.

  • One major problem with the use of music therapy is that particular forms of music may also be associated with past drug use for people. Great care must be exercised in using music therapy in these situations, and in some cases, certain types of music may actually be detrimental and increase the potential for relapse in some people.
  • If the application of music therapy results in the development of aggression, agitation, or negative emotional states in the person, it is best to discontinue the intervention.
  • The maximum benefit from music therapy can only be realized when it is delivered by a trained and licensed music therapist.
  • Music therapy is not a panacea. While it may be very useful in assisting and enhancing treatment effectiveness, it should never be used as the primary or sole form of treatment for a substance use disorder. 

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