How to Use Music Therapy to Help in a Variety of Health Problems

At the Peterson Family Foundation, we are focused on funding music therapy programs across the nation and around the world. We believe in supporting programs that use music to aid in a child’s recovery while in the hospital. Research has proven that music therapy has known to provide physical and mental relief and benefits for children.

These benefits include:

  • Reducing a patient’s pain
  • Providing patients with the ability to express themselves without words
  • Facilitating relaxation through singing, playing instruments, writing songs or listening to music

As we explained in our Health Benefits of Music Therapy blog post, “Music therapy can help to relieve pain and reduce stress and anxiety for the patient, resulting in physiological changes, including: improved respiration, lower blood pressure, improved cardiac output, reduced heart rate and relaxed muscle tension. This form of therapy has been shown to have a significant effect on a patient’s perceived effectiveness of treatment, including pain reduction, relaxation, respiration rate, and lower levels of anxiety.”

Music therapy also improves the mental challenges of being in a hospital that can include improving stress, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, depression, social withdrawal and much more.

With all of the benefits sick children experience from music therapy in hospitals, there have to be other ways it helps people, right? Keep reading to learn how music therapy is helping people with challenges and disabilities, and how you can support this incredible form of therapy.

4 Uses of Music Therapy


Music therapy can be influential in improving behavior and reducing anxiety in children with autism.

According to a 2004 study from the Journal of Music Therapy, music used in interventions with children and teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can:

  • Improve social behaviors
  • Increase focus and attention
  • Increase communication attempts (vocalizations, verbalizations, gestures, and vocabulary)
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Improve body awareness and coordination

Many additional studies have found that children and adults with ASD respond well to music. Often, individuals with autism respond positively to music when little else is able to get their attention, which makes music a potential therapeutic tool.  Here are additional ways music therapy can help children with autism.

Music Encourages Social Interaction

A 2009 study by Kim, Wigram, & Gold discovered that children with autism showed increased emotional expression and social engagement during music therapy sessions when compared to play sessions without music. These children also responded to the therapist’s requests more frequently during music therapy than in play sessions without music.

The study also noted, “A skilled therapist can use music with children to increase their social interaction and improve social skills. Passing and sharing instruments, music and movement games, gathering around a central instrument, learning to listen and singing of greetings are just a few of the ways music therapy sessions can increase interaction.”

Music Can Improve Behavior

A 2012 study of 41 children with autism found that music therapy sessions every week had a positive impact over their behavior during a ten-month period. Children in this study experienced hour-long sessions of music therapy once a week, and their conduct was monitored against a checklist of target behavior like restlessness, aggression and noisiness. More than half the group improved by one or two points on the scale after the music therapy sessions.

Music Can Reduce Anxiety

Children with autism are more sensitive to anxiety than the average child, as they are unable to filter out provoking stimuli. A small four-week study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse in 2006, found preliminary success in reducing anxiety in autistic patients through music therapy. After 16 short, 20-minute sessions, during which the treatment patients listened to rhythmic music, the participants who received the therapy appeared to have decreased anxiety-related behaviors. Classical music or music with a steady rhythm is thought to be the best for alleviating anxiety in children with autism due to the predictability of the beat.


Music therapy has been helping injured veterans reduce their pain, dating back to World War I.

As we previously explained, volunteer musicians used music therapy in World War I and World War II by playing for wounded soldiers. Nurses noted that after musicians would finish, the veterans reported feeling less pain. Currently, a historic program was established through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense, the NEA brought a music therapy program to patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. This program reflects the growing trend of creative art therapy programs in healthcare settings.

On November 13, 2014, then President Obama spoke about the importance of music therapy in the recovery of a wounded warrior during, “A Salute to the Troops: In Concert at the White House.” In recognition to a wounded soldier, Christmas Luis, Obama noted, “[In] the months and years that followed, he kept fighting back with the help of hundreds of hours of music therapy. And today, Luis can see again, he can eat again, he can speak again. He’s even playing, as I understand, a little bit of golf. And every night, he still goes to sleep with music playing.”

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) has made a name of itself over the past few years by sparking the viral “Ice Bucket Challenge,” which raised awareness and money for the disease. This is a chronic disease that damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The symptoms of the nerve damage include numbness, impairment of speech and muscular coordination, blurred vision and severe fatigue.

Physical Issues

An article from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Music Therapy in Multiple Sclerosis” by Jenny Asparro, who is studying music and neuroscience at St. Olaf College, acknowledged that there are many benefits of music therapy for those with multiple sclerosis. Besides the calming mental affects, it can also encourage body movements to a rhythmic beat, helping people with the disease move more.

Body movements that we use during the day are essential to keeping us active and independent. Adding repeated movements together with a melodic sound can improve coordination and concentration. Doing these repetitive actions can also affect endurance, and help create a more natural walking gait.

As noted in the study, “Rhythm stimulates the impulse to move and helps people sidestep the coordination processes they can’t think through otherwise. It is almost impossible to fully lose the ability to process music because, unlike speech, it involves so many areas of the brain.”


Memory Issues

Along with physical impairment, those with multiple sclerosis also experience memory problems. Asparro noted in the study that, “some people might find it difficult to recall particular pieces of information or to remember names, words, events etc., they can still learn to carry out new physical tasks.”

Learning to play an instrument can improve cognition and memory. If long-term memories seem lost, studies show listening to music might help those memories to return. This is because hearing music is associated with the areas of the brain where long-term memories are kept.

Verbal Issues

Music therapy was also valuable in improving verbal communication. As Asparro’s study showed, “Music can also help patients improve their verbal communication skills. Singing words that were otherwise difficult to recite has shown to aid in communication and verbal expression. For example, one might not be able to recite the words to ‘Happy Birthday,’ let alone speak fluently, but as soon as the words are set to music, the words can come naturally. Singing can also help with the breath support, pronunciation, and timing needed for speech.”

Children with Special Needs

Music therapy is effective in helping children with special needs express themselves and improve their communication skills.

Music therapy builds up a child’s self-esteem and feeds their spirit. With all the struggles special needs children face, it is incredibly important to support them with this form of therapy. In fact, music therapy can reach children with special needs in ways that other practices cannot, which is one reason why music therapists are specifically trained to create success-based activities that address developmental skills.

Here are six ways music therapy is used to help special needs kids as noted by a mother of a special-needs son:

  1. Speech and communication: Singing custom-written songs to isolate speech sounds and provide a lot of repetition without monotony.
  2. Fine and gross motor skills: Using traditional and adaptive percussive instruments (like maracas) to address specific fine and gross motor skills.
  3. Academic: Putting academic information into a song format to improve recall.
  4. Social skills development: Forming music therapy groups where children practice greetings, taking turns and making eye contact through musical activities.
  5. Behavioral: Creating songs and musical stories about appropriate behavior.
  6. Social-emotional: Singing songs that teach a child how to identify feelings and how to cope with “big” emotions.

Supporting Music Therapy Programs 

While we advocate music therapy programs in hospitals for sick children and teens, we cannot ignore the other amazing benefits of music therapy; it is an incredible resource for those with multiple sclerosis, children and teens with autism, special needs children and veterans.

If you would like to support music therapy, we would love for you to become an advocate! We are passionate about this cause and believe it provides a tremendous amount of relief to children who are in hospitals. Visit our Music Therapy page to learn more or our Contributions page to make a difference!

About the Peterson Family Foundation
The Peterson Family Foundation was founded in 2003 to enhance, restore and improve the quality of life for all human beings. Our primary mission is to seek out and support experts and institutions dedicated to enhancing and improving the lives of people dealing with illnesses requiring a stay at a medical institution by bringing music therapy to as many hospitals as possible. Learn more at our website or share your story with us.