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Understanding Music Therapy & The Brain On Music

Karyna Sitkowski

Do you have a favorite song? Do you often play your favorite songs on repeat? Science has proven that listening to music can benefit overall brain health. Each part of our brain has separate areas that process different things such as language, motor control, vision, and even music. When our mind processes music, it activates all parts of our brain at once. This can be whether you are playing an instrument or listening to music. Music has proved to help people in numerous different ways. One way we can assist people is through music therapy. Music therapy is defined as “a clinical & evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship” according to The American Music Therapy Association. Music therapists help people process emotions through music by playing an instrument, singing, writing lyrics, and more. Music therapy has been shown to help with a range of health issues such as promoting wellness, managing stress, reduce pain, elicit emotions, enhance memory, improve communication skills, improve self-esteem and more. It can help all ages from the time of the neonatal period to the end of one’s life. Music is a different way of communicating and can be helpful with those who are non-verbal or those who have a hard time expressing emotions. Often, music therapy is used in hospital settings, hospice care, dementia & Alzheimer’s centers, personal appointments, and more.

Over time, research regarding the benefits of listening to music has advanced. Some research has even focused on specific mental health issues such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury”. Symptoms of PTSD may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event and more. Those with PTSD often have a difficult time adjusting, coping, and difficulty with emotion regulation. One may not be able to verbally express the traumatic event but through music therapy, they have an opportunity to express their emotions with music. Research has found that therapy via music can help reduce symptoms of PTSD such as a decrease of anxiety, improved depressive symptoms and better functioning of people with depression compared to treatment as usual (Aalbers et al., 2017).

Another major research discovery was finding benefits of music therapy for those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of Dementia. Dementia is a general term for a loss of memory, reasoning or other thinking skills while Alzheimer’s is the specific disease. Both Alzheimer’s and Dementia are degenerate brain diseases that affect the hippocampus of the brain which is in charge of memory and learning. While we still do not have a cure for these diseases, there can be some ways we can alleviate symptoms.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, music can help reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues. Music is important because it allows predictability with rhythms, beats, and tempos. These factors can give us a link to reality as well as improve our communication and connection with others. Because music can elicit memories, those with memory loss can still access memories of music. These memories are often core memories which allows the music connection to be made. Tapping along or singing song lyrics allows connection even after verbal skills decline. Some of the most notable examples of those who struggled with memory loss are musicians such as Glen Campbell and Tony Bennett. While often they could not recall basic memories, they were able to continue to play their music and sing to their own songs. This shows how the power of the brain can link core memories with music.

In conclusion, music is in our everyday lives even if we are not aware. Music therapy is wonderful for all ages and helps us connect deeper with others as well as ourselves. Whether it is playing an instrument or just listening to music, you are engaging your brain in a healthy way that helps you emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. With new research being done every day, we are able to understand the ties between overall wellbeing and music therapy. As research continues, our knowledge of the power of music will continue to grow and impact our lives forever.

Here are some ways you can practice some music therapy at home:

  • Listen to the music you like
  • Listen to music in a calm area
  • Use music to create the mood you want (Such as happy, sad, uplifting, inspirational, etc.).
  • Add clapping or dancing for extra enjoyment
  • Make sure the volume is at a comfortable level

Additional Resources:

If you would like to find a music therapist, please contact The American Music Therapy Association

The American Music Therapy Association, Inc.

Phone: (301) 589-3300;



Video Resources: 

Music Therapy 101 video:

Trauma and Music Therapy: Let the Healing Begin | Karla Hawley | TEDxSnoIsleLibraries

**Please note that some of the information talked about can be triggering (i.e. abuse, suicide, trauma)

The healing power of music: Robin Spielberg at TEDxLancaster

Click on the link to watch Tony Bennet’s journey with performing music with Alzheimer’s.

Check out the link below to listen to Glen Campbell’s song about his Alzheimer’s journey


For more information, questions, or additional resources please contact Karyna Sitkowski at

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