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Exploring the Types of Music Therapy and How They Differ

We all have that one playlist or song that's like a time capsule, taking us back to some moment in the past. Music evokes a wide range of emotions, from joy to sadness, pain to healing, love to grief, and many more. 

So, it comes as no surprise that therapists use music experiences to help improve mental health and overall well-being. Music therapy has diverse applications in healthcare, community programs, and education. 

Here, we’ll explore the different types of music therapy and how each is uniquely suited to specific therapeutic needs. 

Important: Remember, you should always see a healthcare professional for expert guidance before trying any form of music therapy. 

What is music therapy?

As the name suggests, music therapy is a form of therapy that predominantly uses music or musical elements like harmony and rhythm to address mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But it involves a lot more than just laying on your therapist's couch listening to songs. 

Your music therapist may recommend activities like dancing, listening to specific songs, reading music or writing your own, or simply discussing elements of music. Since each case is different, they will assess your situation and goals before recommending appropriate music therapy techniques. 

Music therapy may be especially helpful for managing conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. It may also support aspects of children's development, including learning, behavior, and emotional regulation. 

The idea of music as a healing influence dates back to Ancient Greece, where people would use soothing sounds to enhance the connection between the body and mind. 

The relationship between music and health became a frequent subject of medical studies in the early 19th century. By 1914, this form of therapy had garnered significant interest, with surgeons noting that patients exposed to music before their surgeries were less anxious than those who weren't. 

Active vs. receptive interventions

Music therapy falls into two main categories — active and receptive. In active therapy, you create a piece of music or learn to play a musical instrument. (If your therapist recommends this form of music therapy, these hand-strength exercises may help with the physical aspect of playing.)

Receptive music therapy, on the other hand, is less demanding. It involves listening to music and discussing it to help process your emotions. In a typical session, your therapist may play a song and ask you to analyze its lyrics. 

What does a session with a music therapist look like?

On the surface, music therapy seems pretty straightforward — just playing or listening to music — but it’s quite complex when you look deeper. While each person’s sessions can be completely different, here’s a general overview of what a typical session might look like. 

First, your therapist will assess your condition to determine if you're a good fit for music therapy. If you are, they’ll help you set goals and develop a treatment plan, which may include some or all of the following activities:

  • Listening to music 
  • Songwriting
  • Analyzing lyrics 
  • Dancing 
  • Playing an instrument 

Examples of different types of music therapy

Of course, music therapy isn't as clear-cut as simply listening to your favorite tunes. If it were, we'd all be able to eliminate our depressive symptoms by turning on the radio. Or even manage anxiety disorders like stage fright before big presentations, all on our own — wouldn't that be a treat?

There's a science to the practice that requires the guidance of a board-certified music therapist. These professionals use various approaches to help patients, including:

Guided imagery and music

The Bonny method of guided imagery and music (GIM) is a type of music therapy that uses classical music and imagery to explore personal growth, consciousness, and psychological issues. The goal is to help patients uncover hidden emotions and enhance creative insights by tapping into the unconscious mind. 

In a typical GIM session, a music therapist guides you into a relaxed state, plays some music, and asks you to explain the sensations or memories the music evokes. This approach may help manage symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), grief and loss, and stress. 

Analytical music therapy

Analytical music therapy (AMT) uses music to explore your relationships with yourself, others, and music. It typically involves a sort of musical dialogue between you and your therapist. They may ask you to sing or play a musical instrument to express your unconscious thoughts so you can reflect on them together. 

Like GIM, this type of music therapy helps tap into the unconscious mind and may help you deal with unresolved issues. 

Neurologic music therapy

Neurologic music therapy (NMT) uses music to address cognitive, sensory, and motor dysfunctions due to neurological diseases or injuries. This therapy is based on neuroscience research, which shows that music stimulates the brain and promotes neuroplasticity. 

When effectively administered, NMT may improve motor skills, auditory perception, speech, and balance. Healthcare professionals use it to help manage a wide range of conditions, including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and more.

Nordoff-Robbins music therapy

Nordoff-Robbins music therapy, also known as creative music therapy, is an improvisational approach where therapists and patients play musical instruments (typically drums or cymbals). The goal is to help clients self-express and improve their ability to relate to others. 

This form of therapy may work especially well for children, adolescents, and adults with developmental and emotional challenges like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

Community music therapy

Community music therapy focuses on community engagement and societal change through music. Rather than promoting the well-being of a single individual, like other music therapy interventions, the goal is to facilitate a better quality of life in group settings. It has broad applications, from schools to healthcare facilities and nursing homes. 

Orff music therapy

Orff music therapy is based on the Orff concept. While Carl Orff didn’t develop it as a music therapy approach, therapists successfully incorporated the core ideas — rhythm, movement, and improvisation — into music therapy sessions. 

This form of therapy integrates music with movement, speech, and sometimes drama to improve expressive language, social interactions, motor skills, and auditory processing. It's especially suited for educational settings to promote self-expression and encourage creativity. 

Behavioral music therapy

This form of therapy combines the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with music activities to bring about behavioral changes. Typically, a music therapist uses elements like lyric analysis or songwriting to reinforce positive thoughts and behaviors and modify negative ones. 

For example, if you're struggling with depression, your therapist may encourage you to compose your own songs. The lyrics might focus on reinforcing your self-esteem, highlighting the positive changes you've experienced from therapy. 

Integrating music therapy insights with Trala

Music is undoubtedly powerful, as evidenced by the many benefits of music therapy. This type of therapy may reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, promote social and communication skills, lower blood pressure, and even improve fine motor skills. 

While you should only participate in music therapy under the guidance of a certified therapist, you may want to complement your sessions by learning an instrument with Trala. With Trala, you can learn to play the violin yourself, which can also be a therapeutic act, relieving stress and promoting self-expression. 

Trala connects you with expert teachers ready to customize your lessons to meet your needs and provide one-on-one live instruction. 

Sign up for your first lesson with Trala today to explore the power of music and its positive effects on health and well-being.

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