The History of Music Therapy

The Peterson Family Foundation believes music therapy has the ability to help alleviate pain and suffering in children and teens while they are in the hospital. Whether kids are listening to music or making it themselves, channeling their emotions into art helps both their mind and body.

Music therapy has a positive impact on the mental and emotional health of children and teens.

Music therapy has a positive impact on the mental and emotional health of children and teens.

Music therapy involves a trained and certified professional using music in a clinical manner to improve healing in patients. Music is used to reduce pain, offer patients the ability to express themselves without words and facilitate relaxation through singing, playing instruments, writing songs or listening to music.

For children, music therapy is a chance to explore their emotions by listening to songs or learning to play a new instrument. It is individualized, providing children of all ages and ability levels self-discovery and a chance to release emotions.

The origins of music therapy go back millennia, to the time of the great Greek empire.

Music Therapy in Greek Mythology

Apollo: Apollo is the Greek God of Sun, Light, Music and Prophecy. As the son of Zeus, he is worshiped for his ability to heal and ward of disease. It is believed that, “Apollo’s lyre symbolizes the gift of music, which is the harmony of sounds. To have health and healing, there must be a harmonious ordering of all the vital forces within the organism; all the strings must be in tune. There’s a deep therapeutic relationship between music and healing.” Apollo is also credited with creating the flute and lyre.

Asclepius: Asclepius is the son of Apollo and inherited the gift of healing and music. Known as the God of Medicine, Asclepius was raised by Centaur Chiron, who taught him medicine and the healing arts. In Egyptian culture, they believe that Asclepius was able to cure illnesses of the mind through music and song.

Music Therapy in Philosophy

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Music is cathartic?” This phrase is important because it connects Aristotle and music therapy.

The Oxford Dictionary defines catharsis as, “The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” Aristotle first spoke of catharses in his book Poetics; the phrase has been debated and discussed for centuries. His theory of catharsis refers to the purification of emotion, especially “pity and fear,” through art. Aristotle thought that experiencing tragedy or comedy through theatre could have a cathartic impact on the body.

Music therapy is important in providing catharses to those who are sick, especially children and teens, because it allows them an outlet to express and purge their emotions.

With the help of a music therapist, a child may be asked to listen to relaxing music to calm stress and anxiety. Based off their responses, music therapists measure the patient’s emotional wellbeing to make plans for future treatments. As well as listening to music, playing an instrument, writing and singing songs have all been known to provide catharses because these activities help release memories, negative emotions and repressed feelings. Music therapy is an important part of the healing process because it can bring about a positive change in thoughts, behavior and attitude, thus catharses.

As Mark Laret, CEO of UCSF Medical Center & UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals explains,”Our patients come to us during difficult times in their lives. Hands-on music-making offers them a way to work through the emotions that accompany illness or injury. For children of all ages, creative expression is a powerful source of comfort and connection while they are away from home.”

Music Therapy in Native American Culture

Not unlike Apollo’s attributes in Greek mythology, Native Americans believe in harmony between mind and body. Tribes in Native American cultures believed that health was an expression of the spirit, mind and body. If anything was off, illness and harm would come their way. Only when harmony was achieved could health be restored.

Healing practices of Native Americans go back thousands of years and differ slightly between tribes. Many not only used herbs, roots and plants to create remedies for medical problems, but also believed in certain ceremonies and rituals to cure the ill. In addition to herbal remedies, the tribe would often come together to help the sick through ceremonies, dances, prayer and chanting.

Native American tribes used song and chants in their healing ceremonies.

Native American tribes used song and chants in their healing ceremonies.

In tribes such as the Sioux and Navajo, if the group as a whole needed balance and harmony, they would use a medicine wheel, a sacred hoop and hold ceremonies where they would sing and dance for days.

When individuals were sick, designated healers would also sing, dance, chant and use drums as part of the healing process. Medicine Men and Women believed their, “Primary role was to secure the help of the spirit world, especially the ‘Creator’ or ‘Great Spirit,’ for the benefit of the community or an individual.” The Medicine Man/Woman was also a priest in addition to being a doctor. Believing that disease could be caused by human, supernatural or natural causes, the healer was equipped to treat illness in any of these categories.

Some healers would use song when they were called on to help a sick member of a tribe. According to Dr. Frances Densmore, Native American Medicine Men and Women would fast in order to receive a song in a dream or vision that would instruct them on how to treat their patient.

Music Therapy in the Military

Music therapy was used to heal injured World War I and II Veterans.

Music therapy was used to heal injured World War I and II Veterans.

Music therapy in the military goes all the way back to World War I and World War II. During two of the biggest wars in history, musicians in the community volunteered and went to veteran hospitals to play music for the wounded. Patients with physical and emotional trauma (or both) noticed a difference in their mood and experienced a positive emotional response to the music. Doctors and nurses also recognized an improvement in patients and began hiring musicians to play in hospitals.

Flash forward to 2012, when 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.

An event held at the Pentagon in 2014 showcased military veterans’ art work that expressed their “Invisible Wounds.” Art therapists as well as music therapists and professional creative writers took service members through a creative process, allowing them to reflect and organize thoughts that had been troubling them. The involvement of music therapy in the military is an incredible example of how powerful and meaningful it is to be able to express one’s emotions during a difficult time.

Music Therapy in Present Day

Today, music therapy is a critical part of many pediatric hospitals, including Boston Children’s Hospital and University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital. Not unlike the soldiers of World War I and II, present day patients, nurses and doctors have all noticed a positive change when children engage in music therapy. The UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital has experienced outcomes of stress relief, behavioral modification, distraction and pain management from their music therapy programs.

According to Julie Pollman, Child Life Services teacher/supervisor at UCSF Benioff Children’s, “Parents have reported that music was the only thing to bring a smile to their child’s lips during their hospital admission.”

To keep this exciting method of healing, over 72 colleges offer bachelors and doctorate degrees in music therapy. Burklee College of Music is one example of a university that offers education and degrees in music therapy. Not only do students learn music theory, history of music therapy and how to teach and assess skills, they are also trained in how to operate in clinical settings.

There may be few subjects that have a more interesting and diverse history than music therapy. Greek mythology and Greek philosophers created an interesting discussion of the power of music and how it can be used as a healing tool. Native Americans centered much of their healing practices around the use of chant and song in rituals to mend and aid the sick. The United States military during World War I, World War II and in recent history have used music therapy to help Veterans by playing music and getting them involved in the creative process. Music therapy has evolved quite a bit from military volunteers to students studying to be professionals in the field. The success of music therapy in the past shines a bright light on the future of this form of healing.

Knowing how far music therapy has come and where it is now only instills hope and possibility for how far we can take it. Music therapy is important because it not only gives children and teens the opportunity to listen to music, but to also get involved and create music for themselves. The ability to creatively express oneself in an emotional setting, such as a hospital, cannot be taken for granted.  If you would like to see more music therapy programs in hospitals to help children and teens relieve pain and improve their emotional state, please consider donating to the Peterson Family Foundation so we can make it a reality.