What is Music Therapy?
As with other traditional forms of therapy, music therapy is an established, evidence-based, research-supported profession that uses musical intervention to improve individuals’ physical, cognitive, social, and/or emotional well-being.
Music therapists are university-trained health professionals accredited by the Australian Music Therapy Association (http://www.austmta.org.au). Assessing each individual’s needs, therapists work one-on-one to identify and work towards personal improvement and goals. They incorporate various techniques in therapy sessions, such as singing, playing instruments, writing music, dancing, or listening to music. Therapists work in multiple settings, including hospitals, community centres, aged care facilities, early childhood centres, schools, and private practices. Music therapy is unique because it can benefit people of any age, disability, background, regardless of musical ability. In fact, anyone can benefit from music therapy.
There is much research showing music therapy is widely influential.
The brain is a complicated network of neural connections. Certain regions are more associated with specific functions, such as language, motor planning, sight, hearing, etc. The more these functions are activated, the stronger the connections become. In individuals who have acquired damage to specific brain regions, such as those with acquired brain injury or those who have lost sight, neural connections in areas are seriously weakened. However, the brain has the incredible ability to form new neural pathways to these regions. This is called neuroplasticity, and we are just beginning to learn how it works and how to harness its potential for therapeutic treatment. Music is remarkable because it activates the visual, motor, and coordination areas of both hemispheres simultaneously. Music can help strengthen these connections and promote development by tapping into the brain’s neuroplasticity.
It has long been used in helping children develop and is very useful in Early Intervention. A 2014 scientific review of 431 articles looking at music therapy for ASD found that music therapy significantly improved the social interaction skills, social-emotional reciprocity, and communication skills of children with ASD aged between 2 and 9 years, although more research needs to be conducted on the long-lasting effects of music therapy in this population.
Music therapy can also help adults and has been shown to help with stress and chronic pain. A McGill University meta-analysis4 found that listening to music was more effective than prescribing drugs to reduce anxiety before surgery. Another study done in Singapore found live music therapy sessions gave palliative care patients relief from persistent pain. For people with mental illness, debilitating social isolation can be overcome through music’s social connection. Another scientific review found that music therapy has significant and lasting positive effects on the global state, social functioning, and symptom reduction for people with mental illness.
Under the NDIS, music therapy can be included in individuals’ funded support plans.
Despite the benefits of music, not everyone under the NDIS has access to music therapy. The therapy needs to be linked to stated goals and aspirations in the person’s plan and needs to be reasonable and necessary. For a child eligible for early intervention, this could be covered by a goal towards social inclusion or capacity building. Part of the problem is that there seems to be a considerable lack of awareness and access to music therapy services in Australia, despite it being an established and research-supported profession. A case study conducted by the University of Melbourne found that out of all the individuals interviewed in the study, none could identify music therapy service providers on their own. This stems partially from the geographic location of music therapists and doubts about the therapy’s effectiveness by those with the power to approve it in individual plans, despite the widespread evidence.
It makes sense that there would be scepticism by those who haven’t seen the power of music in action; after all, choosing “the arts” over traditional medicine is quite radical thinking. Over time we do believe that these views will change.