Music Therapy Techniques

Music therapists have numerous interventions and techniques available to help others heal, restore balance in their lives, and live with disabilities and life-threatening illnesses. This page lists some of the more well known or recent interventions developed for music therapy professionals.

Creative Interventions

Using creative music therapy interventions, clients take an active role in the music therapy sessions. They create music, compose a song, drum, improvise on instruments, or sing.

Drumming and Music Therapy

music therapy drumming

Drumming and drumming circles have become increasingly popular in recent years, thanks partly to the researchers and music therapists identifying the emotional, physiological, and social benefits of this musical intervention.

Barry Bittman, M.D., and CEO of the Meadville Medical Center’s Mind-Body Wellness Center in Pennsylvania, led one of the first clinical research projects measuring the number of infection-fighting immune cells in the bloodstream of drumming group participants. The drummers had increased cell activity related to beneficial immune function, which the researchers said were important agents for fighting neuroendocrine and immunological disorders.

Music therapists also point to drummings’ benefits of helping those cope with emotional trauma, as well as those seeking self-exploration and realization. According to the Raven Drum Foundation, founded by drummer Rick Allen of Def Leppard and Lauren Monroe, drumming has shown the following benefits:

  • Reduces tension, anxiety and stress
  • Helps control chronic pain
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Creates a sense of connectedness with self and others
  • Helps us experience being in resonance with the natural rhythms of life
  • Releases negative feelings, blockages and emotional trauma
  • Provides a medium for individual self-realization

Participants don’t need any drumming experience to participate. It’s a user-friendly instrument that anyone can play, immediately, and its catchy rhythms are addictive. Its benefits also include a nonthreatening environment that develops camaraderie, group participation, and light-hearted fun.

Drumming and Asthma

At the Meadville Medical Center’s Mind-Body Wellness Center, Dr. Bittman leads a group of eight children with asthma in a drumming group, a fun way to teach kids better breathing skills.

He has the kids hang the drums around their necks so they fall on their chests, placing one hand on the drum and the other hand on their stomachs. Now he has them breathe with their diaphragms, watching the movement of the drums.

Soon the kids replace the breathing exercises with free-form drumming, laughing and creating rhythms and beats that pleasantly sync together. The drums teach important breathing skills to kids with a life-threatening condition while also providing relaxation and a way to bond with others.

Singing Therapy

Stroke, dementia, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease are examples of illnesses or conditions that leave people unable to speak – yet, somehow, they are still able to sing.

Scientists have long noted this unusual ability for those who can’t talk, belting out songs in their entirety. But only recently have they started to understand the science behind this phenomena.

Wendy Magee told that music is a “mega-vitamin for the brain.” Magee, an M.D. and International Fellow in Music Therapy at London’s Institute of Neuropalliative Rehabilitation, said that music is a useful tool in helping people with brain damage.

“When neural pathways are damaged for one particular function such as language, musical neural pathways are actually much more complex, and much more widespread in the brain,” Magee said.

According to Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., and associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel and Harvard University, when damage occurs to one part of the brain, such as the left side of the brain, or the control center for speech and language abilities, the right side of the brain has the ability to change in structure to compensate.

Also reported on, Schlaug credits music-making as a highly effective intervention. He points to Melodic Intonation Therapy that has patients sing tones, then words to those tones. This exercise allows patients to transfer these sound-making skills to spoken words on which they have not been trained.

And it’s enjoyable as well for these patients, providing them with a release from the stress and discomfort caused by the illness.

“There’s rarely any other activity that could really activate or engage this many regions of the brain that is experienced as being a joyous activity,” Schlaug said.

Sing for Joy

In 2003, Nina Temple, diagnosed at age 44 with Parkinson’s disease, cofounded with a friend the group “Sing for Joy.”

The choir, now numbering around 24 fellow sufferers of Parkinson’s and related disorders, has acclaimed jazz singer Carol Grimes as their singing teacher, and the inventive jazz musician Dorian Ford as their pianist. They now perform publicly, ranging from Cole Porter classics to punk songs.

“I was thinking of all the things which I wished I’d done with my life and I wouldn’t be able to do,” said Temple to CNN about her Parkinson’s diagnosis. “And then I started thinking about all the things I still actually could do, and singing was one of those.”

For those struggling with chronic, debilitating illnesses, the choir takes “debilitating” out of part of their lives, provides therapeutic vocal exercises, and a cohesive sense of community and belonging.

Receptive Interventions

Using receptive interventions, clients listen to music, becoming recipients of the musical experience rather than active music makers. During or after the listening experience, clients discuss evoked thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Or they use receptive music therapy for reaching states of deep relaxation and meditation.

The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music

The most internationally known method of a receptive form of music therapy, the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, uses western classical music to stimulate a client’s unfolding of imagery experiences. Developed by Helen L. Bonny, Ph.D., in the early 1970s, Bonny had a mystical experience with music while playing the violin, revealing to her the healing power of music. She combined her unique understanding of music, her extensive therapeutic training, and her spiritual insight, to research and develop this method.

The Association for Music and Imagery provides detailed information on this music-oriented exploration of consciousness. The website states: “It offers persons the opportunity to integrate mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of well-being, as well as awaken to a greater transcendent identification.”

A music therapist trained in the Bonny Method facilitates the sessions, some of which last up to two hours.

Assessing the reasons for the client’s visit, the music therapist discusses the client’s current life situation, and establishes a focus for the sessions, also setting specific goals. The therapist uses a guided relaxation technique, and then plays the selected music, allowing it to become a vehicle for exploring deeper states of consciousness. The client verbalizes images, feelings, sensations, memories, and other types of awareness evoked by the music.

During the musical exploration, the music therapist asks questions to help clients further develop the imagery. At the close of the session, the therapist assists the client in returning from the deepened state, reinforcing any insights developed by the exploration.

This type of music therapy intervention awakens creativity, and provides reflections on personal relationships, feelings, and personality.

VibroAcoustic Therapy

VibroAcoustic therapy (VAT) combines the vibrations of relaxing music with low frequency vibrations. During a VAT session, sound is transferred directly to the body’s surface from a specialized table or chair that provides low frequency vibrations, along with speakers or a headset that delivers relaxing music to the client.

According to the International Society for VibroAcoustic Therapy, ( “sound waves transfer movement energy to the surface of the body, but it also means that matter inside the body receives vibrations. All molecules inside the body have been put in motion. All cells inside the body have been vibrated by the sound waves which move through the body. We can look upon it this way: The body has received internal massage. Thus organs in the body which we cannot reach by traditional methods – nerves, glands, lungs, heart, deep-lying blood vessels, and brain tissue – will react when being exposed to sound vibrations.”

Developed in the 1980s by Olav Skille, he used vibroacoustic stimulation for severely disabled children, playing them music through large speakers pressed against beanbags that the children were lying on. The vibrations relaxed and stimulated the children, and through the years, he discovered that this therapy helped children with asthma, autism, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, and a number of other conditions.

VAT is now used by music therapists across the world, thanks to empirical research studies done over the past 30 years, studies showing the most effective frequencies that have a positive influence on certain defined health-related conditions.

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