People ask all the time: is music ACTUALLY a form of therapy?
Can music ACTUALLY help people overcome trauma, and heal?
How effective is music and songwriting compared to more traditional forms of therapy and counselling?
Do you remember as a teenager listening to certain songs and thinking that – finally – someone understood how you felt. Finally: you weren’t alone with your feelings or thoughts. Finally: someone had put the words together that completely encapsulated what you were going through at that moment in time.
As a young person, those bands were wide and varied, but the artists that stuck with me the most as the ones that best helped me channel my voice, my fears and shape my understandings of the world were Pink, Linkin Park, Enigma, Eminem and Otep. Five completely different artists that both gave me hope but also helped me express my frustration, anger, overwhelm, fear, hurt and depression.
Music therapy, by definition, is “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program”. It can be utilized in multiple forms:
- listening to melodies
- playing an instrument
- guided imagery
- and writing songs
But how does it work? Why music?
According to the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), music remains preserved for those neuropathways that connect that music with really positive feelings. Listening to music stimulates dopamine, which is linked to feelings of pleasure, and oxytocin aka the “love hormone”. There’s also evidence to suggest that music lowers our levels of cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone. So even when we are feeling our absolute worst: hearing our favorite songs has the ability to alchemize our angst into something positive – even if the music doesn’t sound overly positive. Listening and singing along to songs that identify and express similar negative emotions to those that we are feeling helps us to feel validated. Seen. Heard.
Which is all important, well, and good, but surely there’s more to music therapy than simply plugging in and zoning out? Surely there’s something more to music therapy than listening to Sam Cooke, Iron Maiden or Tina Turner and having our feelings ratified. Isn’t there a danger of getting stuck in a loop of anger when we’re constantly listening to angry music?
This is why songwriting is such a powerful tool in the music therapy toolbox. It offers us the ability to use music as a safety blanket thus allowing us to step into those vulnerable spaces within our conscience, and start to work through where our thoughts are coming from, why, and potentially even turn those struggles into songs of strength, resilience and overcoming.
On a cognitive level, music stimulates multiple areas within our brain that help us to rewire our thoughts, ideas, and memory banks.
- Music stimulates the prefrontal cortex, which operates our behavior and decision making. In other words: we can use songwriting and music to completely restructure our thinking, strategize our “what will we do better next time?” plan, and thus make better decisions next time we are faced with adversity.
- Music agitates our nucleus accumbens and amygdala, which is involved in emotional reactions. We aren’t what happens to us – but we are how we respond, so we can utilize lyric-writing to help us recreate potential responses to the chaos that surrounds us.
- Music also stimulates the hippocampus, which is involved in improved memory, music memory and experiences. This is particularly key for therapeutic practices so that we can recall painful experiences that have subconsciously formed our present-day beliefs, ideas and judgments. Only once we truly identify our emotional scars can we start to work through and heal ourselves.
- Similar to our nucleus accumbens and amygdala: music affects the cerebellum which affects our emotional reactions, yes, but also our movement. This can be particularly key when it comes to survivors of physical or sexual abuse, as previous traumas can seriously affect how survivors carry themselves, their body language, and the ways in which they physically interact with the world.
Ultimately, music affects multiple areas of the brain all working in tandem with one another to accelerate growth in areas within the brain that might be lacking. Both songwriting and music offer a creative solution to helping clients identify, simplify, process and understand, alchemize and overcome trauma in ways that traditional therapy might not necessarily be able to fix as quickly – especially for our Millennial and Generation Z clients whose minds need to be stimulated differently than generations before them, due to being born and raised in the new age of information technology.
So while many of us simply appreciate music for the feelings it stirs within us, music is a much more complicated beast. It has served me time and time again, as I use it to identify, process and overcome my own traumas, learn from them, and grow.
The songs I’m now listening to, and using to feel understood, are written by me – and the security blanket is now my shield and sword as I allow the world around me to also listen and understand and connect with me.
So when people ask: is music a therapy, the short answer is yes. But it’s more than just “the treatment of mental health concerns and behavioral problems through communication, relationship factors, and skill building by a qualified mental health professional”: it’s a multifaceted tool that can continue to serve clients long after they write their songs of truth, healing and growth.
Of course, if you’re interested in seeing whether music and songwriting as therapy are right for you or your teenager, click here to book a discovery call.