An Introduction to Therapeutic Music

What is therapeutic music?

Therapeutic music is live, acoustic music, played or sung, and specifically tailored to an individual patient’s immediate need. It is an art based on the science of sound. Therapeutic music is practiced by musicians who complete an approved therapeutic musician curricula and a supervised internship from an accredited training program. 

What is the history of therapeutic music?

There is archaeological evidence of music being used for its therapeutic value for millennia. Modern therapeutic music developed in the 1990s, with the founding of the first training program in music thanatology in 1991. Music thanatology is focused on end-of-life care using voice and harp. In 1993, the Music for Healing & Transition Program (MHTP) was founded. It was conceived in response to a need for a training program for those who wished to provide live music for many kinds of patients, but who were not interested in becoming Music Therapists. Within a few years, four therapeutic musician training programs had been developed. 

Since the inception of the therapeutic music field, hundreds of well-trained and certified graduates are serving to make a difference in the comfort care of patients. An increasing number of healthcare facility administrators recognize the significant benefits such music brings to their patients, families, staff, and organization’s reputation.

How does therapeutic music work?

A therapeutic musician uses the inherent healing elements of live music and sound to enhance the environment for patients in healthcare settings, making it more conducive to the human healing process. The purpose is not to entertain or to give a performance, but to promote healing by bringing the body, mind, and spirit into balance. Because it is live music, the music can be immediately altered to best meet the patient’s needs moment by moment. Depending on the individual patient’s needs, the therapeutic music may:

  • Provide distraction and disassociation from the present situation
  • Refocus attention
  • Alter the sense of time
  • Relieve anxiety and reduce stress
  • Augment pain management
  • Provide a bridge for communication between loved ones
  • Relieve the body and mental tension of the pre-surgery patient
  • Accelerate physical healing of post-surgery and injured patients
  • Ease the birth delivery process
  • Aid mental focus in Alzheimer’s patients by lifting and clearing the consciousness
  • Assist the dying by facilitating ease in the transition process

How is it different from other offerings?

The primary other clinical music modality is music therapy. A certified therapeutic musician uses the artistic application of the intrinsic elements of live music and sound—especially melody, harmony, and rhythm—to provide an environment conducive to the human healing process.

The music therapist uses musical instruments and musicmaking as therapeutic tools primarily to rehabilitate the normal functions of living and improve quality of life through studying and promoting measurable changes in behavior. 

How long or often should I use or practice?

Per patient: Usually a patient visit is 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the need of the individual patient. 

Working in a healthcare facility: A certified therapeutic musician may work as a part-time independent contractor or as a full-time staff member in a healthcare facility. Since the musician must use an instrument to provide the service, each person must consider self-care and injury prevention in how many hours they are able to work.

When is it best to use therapeutic music?

Those who commonly benefit are persons experiencing life’s transitions, such as birthing and dying, as well as those experiencing terminal illness, injury, chronic illness, and/or disease. This may include babies in NICU, patients in hospice care, people recovering from strokes and surgery, people with dementia, and children coping with life-threatening or emotional crises. Facility staff and family members accompanying the patient also benefit from the music.

Potential Side Effects or Disadvantages of Using Therapeutic Music

There are no side effects and disadvantages are minimal. A certified therapeutic musician is trained to first obtain permission from a patient or the patient’s caregiver to provide therapeutic music. The musician also assesses the patient in the course of the session in order to adjust the music they are playing according to the patient’s response. Therefore, a session can end at any moment if it is not beneficial.

About the Author

Melinda Gardiner is a Registered Nurse and Certified Music Practitioner (CMP)® , with nearly 50 years of study, teaching and work in integrative healing and medicine.

As a clinician, singer and harper, Melinda has been offering therapeutic music to patients in many settings since 1990.  She became a Certified Music Practitioner in 1998. Currently she is a therapeutic musician for Community Hospice of Columbia-Greene Counties, Catskill, NY, and at Columbia-Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY. She is the co-author of two books: Shadows of the Living Light and Five Songs for Therapeutic Musicians.


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