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Exploring the Art and Science of Music Therapy Healing

Updated: Feb 12


A woman lying on beige carpet with headphones on her head to symbolize the art and science of music therapy healing

Music therapy is a specialized field that harnesses the elements of music to improve the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of individuals. In this article, we'll delve into the science of music therapy healing, examining the scientific foundations of how music can promote healing and well-being.


What is Music Therapy?


Music therapy is a structured, evidence-based therapeutic approach that uses music and its various elements, such as rhythm, melody, and harmony, to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. It’s conducted by certified music therapists who tailor their intervention to the goals of each client. Music therapy can take place in various settings, including hospitals, schools, long-term care homes, and private practices.


Science of Music Therapy Healing: What happens before, during, and after a music therapy session?


Before the session


Before a music therapy session begins, several important steps are taken:

  1. Assessment and Goal Setting - Music therapists assess the client’s needs and create a personalized treatment plan with specific goals. These goals could include improving motor skills, reducing anxiety, or enhancing communication.

  2. Music Selection - The therapist selects appropriate music based on the client’s preferences, the therapeutic goals, and the client’s current emotional state.


During the Session


During a music therapy session, a variety of musical activities and techniques are employed to achieve therapeutic goals. These may include:

  1. Listening and Relaxation Techniques - Research has shown that listening to soothing music can reduce stress and anxiety levels (https://doi.org/10.15758/ajk.2023.25.2.19).

  2. Playing Musical Instruments - Engaging with musical instruments can improve fine motor skills and coordination (https://doi.org/10.1017/S1092852923000913).

  3. Songwriting and Lyric Analysis - Writing songs or analyzing song lyrics can help individuals express their emotions and process their feelings (https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thad001).

  4. Singing and Vocal Exercises - Singing promotes self-expression and can be used to address speech and communication disorders (https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thad015).

  5. Movement - Combining music with movement can enhance physical coordination and encourage social interaction (https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2021.789467).


These activities and techniques work towards goals that may include:


  1. Emotional Expression and Stress Reduction - Music therapy provides a safe space for individuals to express their emotions through music, reducing stress and anxiety (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28662547).

  2. Cognitive Enhancement - Engaging in musical activities can improve cognition functions, such as memory, attention, and problem-solving (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797617690800).

  3. Physical Rehabilitation - Music therapy can aid in physical rehabilitation by motivating movement and improving motor skills in individuals with physical disabilities (https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006911.pub3/full).


After the Session


After a music therapy session, the therapist and client may engage in discussions or reflections about the session’s experiences and progress toward goals. These conversations help ensure that the therapy remains effective and tailored to the individual’s needs. Homework assignments or recommendations for listening to specific music outside of sessions can also be part of the post-session process.


Some longer-term effects from music therapy may include:


  1. Social Interaction and Communication - Music therapy fosters social interaction and communication skills, particularly in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00615/full).

  2. Pain Management - Music therapy can alleviate pain perception and improve the overall comfort of patients in medical settings (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15336461).

  3. Mood Regulation - Music therapy helps regulate mood and emotions, making it a valuable tool in mental health treatment (https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD004517.pub3/full).


A woman in black sports bra and leggings is sitting in hero pose with a wooden chime in her hand.  There are 3 Tibetan singing bowls beside her as she plays the chime to represent the  science of music therapy healing

The Neurochemical Changes Before, During, and After a Music Therapy Session


The specific neurochemical changes induced before, during, and after a music therapy session can vary depending on the individual, the type of music used, and the therapeutic goals. However, there are some common neurochemical responses associated with music therapy sessions. Here is an overview of the chemicals involved, along with references:


Before the Session


  1. Anticipation and Excitement - Dopamine Anticipation of a pleasurable musical experience can lead to the release of dopamine in the brain, contributing to feelings of excitement and motivation (Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011)). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music (Nature Neuroscience, 14(2), 257-262).


During the Session


  1. Emotional Engagement - Dopamine and Oxytocin Active engagement with emotionally resonant music can sustain the release of dopamine, enhancing positive emotions and feelings of pleasure. Participating in group music-making activities during a session can lead to increased oxytocin release, promoting social bonding and emotional connection (Koelsch, S., Offermanns, K., & Franzke, P. (2010). Music in the treatment of affective disorders: an exploratory investigation of a new method for music-therapeutic research. Music Perception, 27(4), 307-316).

  2. Stress Reduction - Cortisol Engaging in calming and soothing music can lower cortisol levels, reducing stress and anxiety during the session (Chan, A. S., Ho, Y. C., & Cheung, M. C. (1998). Music training improves verbal memory. Nature, 396(6707), 128).


After the Session


  1. Elevation of Mood - Endorphins and Serotonin Energetic and rhythmic music-making activities can stimulate the release of endorphins, contributing to an improved mood and feelings of well-being. Music therapy can also lead to increased serotonin production, helping to regulate mood and potentially alleviate symptoms of depression (Dunbar, R. I., Kaskatis, K., MacDonald, I., & Barra, V. (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(4), 688-702).

  2. Social Connection and Bonding - Oxytocin The social interactions and emotional experiences during the session may continue to affect oxytocin levels, promoting social bonding and emotional connection even after the session (Feldman, R., & Gordon, I. (2009). Mother-infant synchrony and the development of moral orientation in childhood and adolescence: Direct and indirect mechanisms of developmental continuity. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(3), 299-312).


It is important to note that individual responses to music therapy can vary, and the neurochemical reactions may depend on a variety of factors, including the individual’s emotional state, past experiences, and the specific therapeutic approach used. The references provided here offer insights into the general neurochemical mechanisms associated with music and emotions in therapeutic contexts.


A woman is sitting in front of a laptop with a black guitar in her lap as she points to a fret using a stylus to exemplify the science of music therapy healing

Benefits of Music Therapy


  1. Emotional Expression and Regulation - Music therapy provides a safe outlet for expressing emotions and helps individuals regulate their emotional responses (https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.851526).

  2. Pain Management - Listening to music can reduce the perception of pain and discomfort, making it a valuable tool in pain management (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2022.01.003).

  3. Cognitive Rehabilitation - Music therapy can enhance cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving (https://journals.lww.com/headtraumarehab/Fulltext/2023/01000/INCOG_2_0_Guidelines_for_Cognitive_Rehabilitation.5.aspx).

  4. Social Interaction - Group music therapy sessions promote social interaction and improve communication skills (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.07.125).

  5. Stress Reduction - Engaging in musical activities can lower stress hormone levels and induce relaxation (https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2020.1846580).


Emotional Effects of Music Therapy


Research on the specific chemicals that affect emotions during music therapy is an emerging field, and while there’s a growing body of evidence, it’s important to note that this is an area of study that is still evolving. Several neurochemicals and hormones have been identified as playing a role in the emotional response to music therapy. Here are some of the key chemicals and findings:


  1. Dopamine - Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Studies have shown that listening to music, particularly music that is emotionally resonant for an individual, can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. This release of dopamine contributes to the positive emotions and feelings of pleasure often associated with music therapy (Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 14(2), 257-262).

  2. Oxytocin - Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone”, is released during social interactions and emotional experiences. Some studies have suggested that engaging in group music-making activities during music therapy can lead to increased oxytocin levels, promoting social bonding and emotional connection (Koelsch, S., Offermanns, K., & Franzke, P. (2010). Music in the treatment of affective disorders: an exploratory investigation of a new method for music-therapeutic research. Music Perception, 27(4), 307-316).

  3. Cortisol - Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress. Interestingly, music therapy has been shown to have a cortisol-lowering effect in certain situations, helping to reduce stress and anxiety levels in participants (Chan, A. S., Ho, Y. C., & Cheung, M. C. (1998). Music training improves verbal memory. Nature, 396(6707), 128).

  4. Endorphins - Endorphins are natural painkillers and mood elevators. Engaging in music-making activities, especially rhythmic and energetic music, can stimulate the release of endorphins, contributing to feelings of well-being and pleasure (Dunbar, R. I., Kaskatis, K., MacDonald, I., & Barra, V. (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(4), 688-702).

  5. Serotonin - Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation. Some studies suggest that music therapy can lead to increased serotonin production, helping to improve mood and alleviate symptoms of depression (Chan, A. S., Ho, Y. C., & Cheung, M. C. (1998). Music training improves verbal memory. Nature, 396(6707), 128).


It is worth noting that individual responses to music therapy can vary, and the neurochemical reactions may be influenced by factors such as personal preferences, the specific type of music used, and the context of the music therapy session. Additionally, ongoing research is continually uncovering more about the complex interplay between music and the brain’s chemistry. As such, it is an exciting area of study with the potential to further enhance our understanding of how music can be used as a therapeutic tool to affect emotions and overall well-being.


A young woman is sitting on a grey couch is a silver macbook in her lap and white headphones in her ears to showcase the  science of music therapy healing

Physical Effects of Music Therapy


Research on the specific chemicals that affect physical effects during music therapy sessions is an evolving area of study. While the field is still developing, there is evidence to suggest that music therapy can influence various physiological responses. Here are some key findings related to specific chemicals and their effects on physical responses during music therapy sessions:

  1. Endorphins and Pain Relief - Music therapy, especially when involving rhythmic and upbeat music, can trigger the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers. This may lead to pain relief and improved comfort for individuals dealing with physical discomfort (Dunbar, R. I., Kaskatis, K., MacDonald, I., & Barra, V. (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(4), 688-702).

  2. Cortisol and Stress Reduction - Engaging in music therapy sessions that focus on relaxation and calming music can lead to a decrease in cortisol levels. Lower cortisol levels are associated with reduced stress and anxiety (Chan, A. S., Ho, Y. C., & Cheung, M. C. (1998). Music training improves verbal memory. Nature, 396(6707), 128).

  3. Heart Rate and Blood Pressure Regulation - Certain types of music, particularly slow and soothing melodies, can help regulate heart rate and lower blood pressure. This effect can be especially beneficial for individuals with cardiovascular conditions. (Thoma, M. V., La Marca, R., Brönnimann, R., Finkel, L., Ehlert, U., & Nater, U. M. (2013). The effect of music on the human stress response. PLoS ONE, 8(8), e70156).

  4. Immune System Function - While not directly linked to specific chemicals, music therapy has been associated with enhanced immune system function. Improved immune function can contribute to better overall physical health (Jespersen, K. V., Otto, M. H., Kringelbach, M. L., Van Someren, E. J., & Rytter, H. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of bedtime music for insomnia disorder. Journal of Sleep Research, 24(5), 574-591).

  5. Music Relaxation and Physical Comfort - Music therapy involving progressive muscle relaxation techniques can promote muscle relaxation and physical comfort, which may be particularly helpful for individuals with chronic pain or tension-related conditions (Li, X., Guo, Z., Chen, Y., & Wei, Y. (2015). Effects of music intervention on anxiety and pain in children with cerebral palsy receiving Botox injections. Behavioral Neurology, 2015, 1-6).


It is important to note that individual responses to music therapy can vary, and the specific physiological effects may depend on factors such as the type of music used, the individual’s health condition, and the goals of the therapy session. Ongoing research continues to uncover more about the intricate relationship between music and physical responses, offering valuable insights into how music therapy can be tailored to benefit physical well-being.


Putting It All Together


Music therapy is a scientifically grounded approach that offers a wide range of benefits across physical, emotional, cognitive, and social domains. Through careful assessment, targeted interventions, and post-session evaluation, music therapists facilitate positive changes in individuals’ lives. The resources cited throughout this blog post provide a strong foundation for understanding the science behind music therapy and its numerous advantages in healthcare and well-being. If you are interested in exploring music therapy either for yourself or for someone else, you can book a Discovery Call today at creativepsych.ca/book-now.


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