How Music Therapy Helps People Heal

music therapy healingLearn how music therapy helps people heal from emotional and physical illness, and how music affects your body, brain, and spirit.

Music therapists help people heal from physical illnesses such as stroke and emotional illnesses such as depression. Here’s how music affects your brain.

Recent psychological research in music therapy shows that the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Dopamine is associated with rewards such as food, drugs and sex.

This new study from The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) at McGill University also reveals that even the anticipation of pleasurable music can make people feel good, because it induces dopamine release. And, the better you feel, the healthier you are!

Here’s a summary of that research, plus a glimpse into what music therapists do to help people heal from emotional illnesses such as grief or depression, or physical illnesses such as cancer or stroke.

How Music Therapy Helps People Heal

Music therapy doesn’t just involve relaxing to the sounds of harps and violins, or banging out your anger or frustration on a set of drums! Those types of music therapy are very healthy for your brain, mood, and immune system…but music therapy goes beyond that.

Music directly and immediately affects the brain, which directly and immediately affects the emotions and body. This new research study by scientists at The Neuro is the first to actually show dopamine being released in the brain, through PET and MRI brain scans.

“These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain,” says Dr. Robert Zatorre, neuroscientist at The Neuro. “To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that an abstract reward such as music can lead to dopamine release.”

This research also provides evidence that even the anticipation of music can make people feel good by releasing dopamine in the brain – which means that healing can begin before the music starts!

If you’re living with chronic illness, music can be a peaceful, natural way to relax. I have ulcerative colitis – and music therapy is one of the ways I keep my colitis in remission.

How Do Music Therapists Help With Emotional Healing?

“Before you die, the last sense to go is your hearing,” says Ken Kuhn, a retired physics teacher in Vancouver. His wife was a nonsmoking 58 year old when she was diagnosed with lung cancer; music therapy was part of her life and death.

After his wife’s death, Ken started volunteering with a bereavement group for teens, led by music therapist Beth Clark of North Shore Palliative Services. This group consists of 13 to 18 year-olds who cope with grief by writing songs, playing exotic and traditional instruments, and listening to different types of music.

“Unexpressed grief is what hurts, and music allows you to express it,” says Ken. “There’s no performance anxiety, just an outlet for pain and healing.”

Music Therapy for Physical Illnesses

Music therapists can help soothe sick infants, reduce chronic pain, and ease fear of death. It lessens the need for sedatives during surgery by lowering emotional stress, heart rate and blood pressure. For people with cancer, music therapy can reduce pain and nausea after chemotherapy or bone marrow transplants.

Music therapists often work with sick kids in hospitals. At BC Children’s Hospital many children, from newborn to 18 years old, are undergoing treatments for cancer, blood disorders and bone marrow transplants. Music therapists visit them in their hospital rooms and give them winged xylophones or omnichords to play. Often, the therapist will accompany the children’s music on a guitar or other instrument. Music therapists may also helps kids write songs about their chemo treatments and needle pokes, which they sing to the nurses.

Music Therapy for Stroke Patients

Since our nervous systems automatically react to sound faster than our brains can process it, we instinctively move to music (though some of us stumble on two left feet!).

To teach stroke patients to walk and talk again, music therapists use a steady beat or metronome. Not only do people instinctively walk to the beat, they also feel less fatigue because it’s a natural response. Talking to the beat exercises facial muscles and tongues, which improves speech and chewing food.

One of my most popular Quips and Tips articles is Best Songs for Broken Hearts – Music to Heal Heartache – because we know that music is healing. It’s built into us.

Music Therapy as a Career

Music therapists are trained professionals accredited by approved programs. After their clinical internship, they work in hospitals, schools, prisons and private practice. Music therapists set goals, chart progress, and work closely with clients to achieve therapeutic goals.

If you’re thinking about music therapy as a career, read How Do You Choose a Career?

Music therapists aren’t all musicians, but many of them play instruments. To learn more about what music therapists do or about becoming a music therapist, visit the Canadian Association of Music Therapy.

Here’s an article I recently wrote about physical health and healing from a neurological disorder: How to Deal With Transverse Myelitis – Tips From a Young Girl.

And, as always, I welcome your comments below.


  • McGill University (2011, January 12). “Musical chills: Why they give us thrills.”
  • Interviews with Ken Kuhn and music therapist Beth Clark.

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