What is Music Therapy for Kids?

“Music therapy provides a creative way for kids to move through trauma, and to be a kid and a whole child, not just a diagnosis.”
Oliver Jacobson, music therapist, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco

Here at the Peterson Family Foundation, we work toward our goal to enhance, restore and improve the quality of life for everyone by seeking out and supporting experts and institutions dedicated to helping the lives of people afflicted by conditions that leave them hospitalized. One of the ways we achieve this goal is by bringing music therapy to kids and teens across the country whose illnesses require a hospital stay to boost their spirits and help them heal.

What exactly is music therapy? Keep reading for a synopsis of this growing and important field of treatment.

Definition of Music Therapy

The Peterson Family Foundation is working to bring music therapy programs to kids and teens across the country who find themselves in hospital care.

The Peterson Family Foundation is working to bring music therapy programs to kids and teens across the country who find themselves in hospital care.

Music therapy involves a trained and certified professional using music in a clinical and evidence-based way to accomplish each patient’s individualized objective. Music is used to reduce a patient’s pain, offers them the ability to express themselves without words and facilitates relaxation through singing, playing instruments, writing songs or listening to music. This popular and longstanding psychology practice uses the physical, emotional, mental, aesthetic and spiritual facets of music to help people improve their overall health.

There are 72 colleges that offer degrees in music therapy, from bachelor’s degrees to doctorates. It is an established health profession that uses music in a therapeutic relationship to help patients deal with their physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs. The process begins with an assessment by a music therapist who determines the patient’s abilities and needs. Activities the therapist designs help achieve those goals through music.

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) says this form of treatment can promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and promote physical rehabilitation. Most of the time, live music is used because it is more flexible and offers a greater chance for interaction between the therapist and patient.

What Doesn’t Classify as Music Therapy

Now that we’ve explained what music therapy is, let’s take a look at what it’s not:

  • Music medicine, bringing about direct effects on a client’s bodily systems and functions by listening to live or recorded music is not considered music therapy.
  • It does not qualify as special music education, teaching special learners about music.
  • Music therapy does not include lessons meant to increase a person’s performance skills with an instrument or vocals.
  • Recreational music intended to engage someone in musical activities in a leisurely way is not musical therapy.
  • Nor is entertainment, which is a live or recorded musical performance for people who only participate in a passive way.

The History of Music Therapy

Music has been used by humans as a healing tool for hundreds of years.

Music has been used by humans as a healing tool for hundreds of years.

The extraordinary qualities of music as a healing force have been recognized for hundreds of years. Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, used it for his patients. Musicians in Britain used to travel from one hospital to another playing music for soldiers injured in battle. Native Americans used chants and dancing to cure the sick. The Arabs built hospitals with music rooms for their patients. Even the great thinkers of history like Plato and Aristotle believed music could affect and purify a person’s emotions.

These examples are just a sample of the ways music has been used to help heal the sick throughout human history.

How Music Therapy Works

The form of music therapy varies based on the individual.  Each person gets the help they need based on their preferences and abilities. For some it means playing a musical instrument, while others get the most from singing. If someone struggles making the music themselves, their outlet can consist of songwriting.

Whatever the method, there’s no denying that this practice can affect a patient’s heart rate and breathing, especially when a strong rhythm is involved. Music therapy also promotes the release of neurotransmitters, called endorphins, which trigger a positive feeling in the body and act as natural painkillers, reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation. There is also evidence that music helps release memories, negative emotions or repressed feelings. This is important in a patient’s healing process because it can bring about a positive change in their thoughts, behavior and attitude.

Why is Music Therapy Effective?

Just like babies who start dancing to songs, all humans seem to have an innate response to music regardless of their level of ability or training. This does not diminish in those impaired by mental or physical illness. Music has the power to engage and keep the attention of patients of all ages. With the guidance of a music therapist, this power can be used to entertain, uplift, open the mind and awaken the senses in order to succeed in meeting numerous therapeutic goals.

There is a substantial amount of literature that backs up the effectiveness of music therapy. A study by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee found that heart-attack survivors in a hospital ward reported feeling less anxious right after listening to classical music. This was reflected in their bodies as well, with their heart rates slowing from an average of 79 beats per minute to 71 and their average number of breaths falling from 17 per minute to 16. The study also showed an increase in the patient’s heart-rate variability, a sign their hearts were becoming stronger.

Thanks to the AMTA, research about the benefits of music therapy has appeared in such publications as the Journal of Music Therapy and Music Therapy Perspectives. Through this research, the American Cancer Society recognizes music therapy as a benefit to cancer patients. MusicWorx has compiled a bibliography with information for anyone interested in learning more.

Who Can Benefit From Music Therapy

Music therapy has been shown to be effective for patients of all ages and for a variety of illnesses.

Music therapy has been shown to be effective for patients of all ages and for a variety of illnesses.

What makes music therapy such a great therapeutic tool is that it is extremely universal. The benefits it provides helps both young and old as well as those suffering from a wide range of maladies – from children with developmental disabilities to people with Parkinson’s disease or dementia to cancer patients. The reality is that almost any patient can see improvements in their healing process by working with a music therapist.

Music Therapy for Kids

Every child has experienced music in one form or another. It is a shared experience everyone can relate to, while at the same time offering a chance to explore using an instrument they have never picked up but always wanted to try.  Since music therapy is designed to be developmentally appropriate for anyone, it provides an opportunity for self-discovery and the chance to release emotions a child might otherwise keep to themselves.

During their first meeting, a music therapist will assess the patient’s abilities, set up goals and create an action plan for future appointments. A session can last anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes and may include the therapist providing music or the therapist and patient making music together. Depending on the needs, a meeting can be as simple as chanting and singing to something more complex like recording a song.

For one young man, music therapy changed his life. In a mini case presented in The Huffington Post, Music Therapy expert Kat Fulton describes the obstacles and achievements that Jonah, a child who was born as a preemie with no sight, faces. Before Jonah started music therapy he was unable read braille and could not cope with difficult tasks. Through working with his music therapist and using his natural affinity for music, he has started learning how to read, vocalizing two to three words at a time – dramatically increasing his communication skills. Beyond his improvement in language, and with the help of music, Jonah is able to stay calm in situations that would have previously frustrated him, such as learning to tie his shoes. Where other strategies have failed to yield progress, music therapy has succeeded in helping this child live a more fulfilling life.

Bringing Music Therapy to a Hospital Near You

At the Peterson Family Foundation, we are committed to bringing this life-changing therapy to as many kids, in as many hospitals, as we can. If you want to be involved in helping us achieve our goal, we encourage you to make a tax-deductible donation. Have you or a loved one experienced the benefits of music therapy first hand? We’d love to hear your story! Find us on Facebook or Twitter and tell us all about it.