The effect of music on the human mind has fascinated people beginning with the 4th century BC, long before experimental psychology had been established. Aristoxenus, a Pythagorean philosopher, was of the belief that music should be classified by the effect that it has on people, rather than its structure. Although his contemporaries disagreed, we now know that he wasn't wrong to acknowledge how powerful the effect of music can be the on the mind.
Due to advances in neuropsychology and brain imaging, we now know that music directly engages reward mechanism in the brain, as well as areas involved in emotion processing and memory. Listening to or creating music can also lead to the creation of new pathways across the two brain hemispheres. This means that musical experience can be harnessed to process emotional experiences.
How can one improve their mental health and wellbeing through music? There are many ways that one can use music for healing. One approach is with the help of a trained music therapist. Music therapy takes a systematic approach to support individuals to process their emotional experiences and develop coping mechanisms to improve their mental health.
"Music therapy helps people create a personal language by which they can explore their inner thoughts and feelings and communicate and engage with others."
- Emma Kenrick, music therapist
What does music therapy involve?
The session usually starts by assessing a client's history and aims. It can then take various shapes and forms: clients may listen to music one-to-one or as a social activity, sing, play instruments or engage with digital music equipment, or even write songs together with the therapist.
“Music therapy offers opportunities to explore beyond what is usually accessible through words. Whether through deep, focused, guided listening to music, or through active music making as a means of sense-making and self-expression, the holistic and integrative model that music therapy offers can benefit people seeking powerful transformative experiences and support while facing various life circumstances. These include stress, burnout and self-care, anxiety and depression, trauma, bereavement, self-exploration.”
- Jasenka Horvat, music therapist and senior lecturer at the University of South Wales
Who is this practice for?
Music therapists work with children and adults of all ages and social backgrounds with a range of diagnoses and difficulties.
"Because musical participation and response does not depend on the use of verbal communication, music therapy is a particularly effective clinical intervention in situations where communication is difficult due to illness, injury or disability. Music therapy can support a child with autism develop emotional, social and communication skills. Someone with an acquired brain injury as the result of an accident can be helped to regain their speech or improve certain motor control/movement. An older person frightened by the isolation and confusion brought on by dementia can, through the powerfully evocative nature of music, be supported to connect to memories as well as encouraging social interaction and emotional expression."
- Emma Kenrick, music therapist
So, is music therapy for me?
If you can't put your finger on what's off or would like to an alternative route to more traditional forms of therapy, you may want to speak to a music therapist and see how this approach can work for you. Just as Aristoxenus envisaged, different types of musical experiences can elicit different emotional responses, and a music therapist would be able to recommend what approach suits you best.