Paraphrasing one of the co-founders of MHTP, Laurie Riley: It is well-known and documented that music has been used for millennia, formally and informally, to change, create, or enhance moods and to help relieve suffering.  Therapeutic music is music that is intended to alleviate a physical, emotional, or mental concern.  Common usage of the term usually refers to acoustic music played or sung live in a variety of healthcare settings, to enhance the healing atmosphere.

Therapeutic music is offered by CMPs and other trained therapeutic musicians by holding an awareness that bringing beauty, presence, and the power of music into a healthcare environment may facilitate healing.  Therapeutic musicians focus on meeting a patient’s present needs with therapeutic music in-the-moment, rather than having the intention of accomplishing a specific goal or outcome. Therapeutic musicians use the intrinsic healing elements of live music and intentionality to create an environment conducive to healing.

Brief Background of Therapeutic Music

Using music to promote a healing environment has been woven into many cultures throughout human history.  The roots of western therapeutic music can be traced back to Pythagoras of Greece who taught music as a medical science, to David’s soothing of King Saul, to the Druids and Bards of Britain and Ireland, to monastic communities of the Middle Ages, and to visionary musicians like St. Hildegard of Bingen, who embodied and passed on the knowledge of the power of therapeutic music.

In the twentieth century, beginning in 1973, bedside therapeutic music was pioneered by Therese Schroeder-Sheker and the Chalice of Repose Project through a new medical modality called Music Thanatology.  Using harp and voice, Therese planted the first seeds for the development of modern live therapeutic music used at the bedside.  MHTP is grateful to Therese for her vision, dedication, and perseverance.

Current Investigations in Therapeutic Music

Contemporary scientific research has shown that music has measurable physiological effects.  For example, therapeutic music may stabilize heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rates.  Studies have shown such diverse results as the finding that therapeutic music can have a positive influence on protective cells of the immune system, can lead a patient into a state of deep relaxation, and can increase endorphin production which may decrease the need for pain medication.   Salivary immunoglobulin, which speeds healing, may be increased.  Music may reduce infection, affect heart rate, aid digestion, and reduce stress.  Music is also becoming a part of drug and alcohol detoxification therapy.  It is used with Alzheimer's and comatose patients and as an aid for those with learning disabilities, as well as in many other situations.  Numerous additional research publications and related work are given in our bibliography (PDF).

Benefits of therapeutic music

According to the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Music, benefits of therapeutic music can include, but are not limited to:

  • Distracting and disassociating from the present situation
  • Refocusing attention
  • Altering the sense of time
  • Relieving anxiety of the critically ill
  • Reducing stress and stabilizing blood pressure of the chronically ill
  • Augmenting pain management
  • Bridging communication between loved ones
  • Relieving body and mental tension of the pre-surgery patient
  • Accelerating physical healing of post-surgery and injured patients
  • Easing the birth delivery process
  • Aiding mental focus in Alzheimer’s patients
  • Easing the dying during transition
  • Supporting vital signs of acute patients

Misunderstandings about therapeutic music

Assumption:  There is only one type or style of music that is beneficial for all patients.  

Truth:  Each patient has unique needs. The patient’s in-the-moment condition determines the type of music played/sung.  

Assumption:  Therapeutic musicians are merely entertainers or performers, or have not received sufficient training to provide therapeutic effects to patients.  

Truth:  Therapeutic musicians are certified through extensive programs that provide high-quality training, requiring intensive clinical practicums and holding high standards for each graduate

Assumption:  Any decent musician can play therapeutic music.

Truth: Certified therapeutic musicians are specially trained to provide prescriptive music, chosen based on the patient’s current condition.  During a music session, the therapeutic musician watches carefully to see if the patient’s condition or response is changing, and if so, the musician modifies the music being played/sung accordingly.

Assumption:  Recorded relaxing music gives patients the same benefits as live acoustic music.

Truth:  Live music played on an acoustic instrument generally results in greater effective patient responses over responses to recorded music.  This is believed to be, at least in part, because of the increased vibrational quality of most live music relative to vibrations of recorded music, and the compassionate presence of the CMP.

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