Music therapy: a simple guide

The Children's Trust Blogger

Music is everywhere you go. It’s on the radio when you get into your car, on your mp3 player, you hear it in adverts as catchy jingles that get stuck in your head and you watch it live at concerts. As music is so integrated into our society and everyday living it can be used as a helpful tool in order to aid recovery from illness or injury. Below is a simple, informative explanation about music therapy and its application in therapy. According to the British Association for Music Therapists (BAMT) the definition of music therapy is: “ established psychological clinical intervention… to help people of all ages, whose lives have been affected by injury, illness or disability through supporting their psychological, emotional, cognitive, physical, communicative and social needs.”

What is music therapy?

Music Therapy utilises different musical styles, methods and instruments in order to improve positive changes in emotional or physical wellbeing. Sessions may focus on one particular musical technique to help aid a certain part of recovery, or sessions may be improvised. Improvisation allows the adult/child undergoing music therapy to express themselves and engage with the outside world in a unique musical language everyone can join in with. Because everyone has the ability to respond to music, it is a great communicative tool. Especially for people that have lost the ability to speak/communicate as a result of a brain injury (BAMT).

How much does music help in therapy?

Children that have a brain injury can find it difficult to interact with their surroundings and the people around them. Music Therapy can help them regain lost skills through the application of musical techniques. Singing familiar songs can help speech stimulation and improve pronunciation and other communication skills. Following rhythmic patterns in music can help develop physical strength and coordination. Playing and listening to music can help improve attention and memory. Making music is psychologically beneficial for emotional expression, which can help them relate to others and manage the emotional impact of their disability.  Watch a short video from The Children’s Trust group music therapy sessions.
Other health benefits music therapy can provide are:
  1. Improved mood.
  2. Reduced stress.
  3. Lessens anxiety
  4. Improved memory.
  5. Improved cognitive performance.
  6. Eases pain.
  7. Provides comfort.

Music and the brain

When music enters the brain it triggers the brains pleasure centres. When listening to music your brain releases dopamine, which plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behaviour. This means when someone is taking part in an activity that the brain deems good, your brain will release more dopamine to motivate you to do that activity more. This kind of reward-motivated behaviour is what encourages people to eat, socialise or learn new skills, like a musical instrument. Research at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability has shown that the use of music therapy has even managed to evoke responses in vegetative state patients and can provide a useful tool to clinicians in assessing patients in low-awareness states. 

Music psychology

The psychology of music is a branch of psychology and musicology (‘The study of music as an academic subject, distinct from training in performance or composition’ – Oxford Dictionary). The goal of music psychology is to explain musical behaviour and experience. This includes understanding the processes through which music is perceived, created, responded to, and incorporated into everyday life. Music psychology studies a range of different musical aspects, including music performance, composition and therapy. Advances in neuroscience has helped scientist and psychologists better understand and observe how the brain responds to music.

What is music therapy used to treat?

Music Therapy has a wide range of applications and has been shown to help people with:  And a whole range of other disabilities and illnesses. A well-known example of how music can help with a disability was showcased during Gareth Gates’ first audition for the ITV show Pop Idol. It can be seen in the video below that Gareth has a speech impediment, but when he sings his stammer is no longer present.
Gareth now works with the McGuire Programme as a speech coach to help others “go beyond stuttering”.

Who can benefit from music therapy?

  • Children
  • Young people
  • People with learning difficulties
  • People with mental health conditions
  • People with dementia
  • People undergoing palliative care
  • People undergoing neurorehabilitation
 Watch this video demonstrating the powerful effects of music on a patient with Alzheimer’s 

Alex Barton's Story

Alex who passed his Alevels
In 2013 at a young age Alex was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Alex received proton beam therapy, which stopped the growth of the tumour but left severe damage to the use of the right side of his body, his sight and his speech. Before the diagnosis Alex was a keen musician and had a passion for playing the guitar. Due to the damage Alex was left unable to play his guitar and do many of the things he used to be able to do. Shortly after Alex was referred to The Children’s Trust to undergo neurorehabilitation. He spent 3 months undergoing intensive therapy, which included music therapy. Alex had a tremor in his right hand that he found hard to control. By using different music therapy techniques and working closely with the music therapist Alex was able to control his tremor and relearn how to play the guitar. During the sessions Alex took a keen interest in playing the piano, which helped him regain his confidence and passion in playing music. 5 years later Alex is still going strong and has just completed his A’ levels and is now attending university.

Types of music therapy

Music Therapy can involve group music sessions or one to one sessions between child and therapist. Each session is tailored to the child’s individual needs. This may involve using instruments to follow tempo to encourage coordinated movement, or singing to help improve speech. Children are given the freedom to interact with the instruments how they wish, which may simply be by listening to others play. These are the six main approaches that underpin music therapy at The Children’s Trust:
  • Physiological
  • Developmental
  • Supportive
  • Psychodynamic
  • Humanistic
  • Transpersonal

Music therapy resources

A few useful related websites:                                                 
  • BAMT (The British Association for Music Therapists)
  • Nordoff Robbins (An independent music therapy charity in the UK)
  • Brain Injury Hub (Practical advice for parents, family and carers of children who have acquired brain injury, provided by The Children’s Trust)
  • MIND (A UK charity providing advice and support for anyone experiencing a mental health problem)


Music Therapy has the core components for reshaping the neural pathways in people with brain injuries. It helps people regain motor skills lost through injury or illness, and regain a quality of life. Music therapy provides a holistic approach to injury, disability and illness and allows people affected to relax and ease anxiety in a safe environment. It can work alongside other rehabilitation programs and provide an alternative to some forms of rehabilitation. It is interactive and encourages positive involvement and social interaction. Music can provide emotional and physical benefits when listened to, it may be to motivate you while at the gym, or to improve your mood when you put on your favourite song. As music is so integrated into life, it can make a huge difference and aid in recovery and rehabilitation.
The extraordinary music box appeal

Frontiers in Media
Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability
The British Academy of Sound Therapy