What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is the scientific use of music interventions within a therapeutic relationship towards observable or measurable functional, educational, rehabilitative or well-being outcomes by a credentialled professional.

Who are credentialled music therapists?

A music therapist conducting a session with an elderly involving the use of a drum

A credentialled music therapist is a professional music therapist who has completed a music therapy university programme and is registered with an accreditation board. Currently, a bachelor’s degree in music therapy is the entry-level degree into the profession in Singapore. AMTS recommends the employment of credentialled music therapists for professional and ethical standards of care.

Who can benefit from Music Therapy?

Recipients of music therapy services do not need to have a background in music nor have any musical skills or training to benefit from this therapeutic modality. Individuals throughout the lifespan can benefit from music therapy. This includes but not limited to

  • Premature babies to children with developmental delays
  • Children and teenagers with special needs
  • Individuals with mental health challenges
  • Adults needing acute or chronic medical care
  • Adults needing medical or rehabilitative care
  • Adulter living with dementia or other neurological disorders
  • Individuals needing end-of-life care

Each corresponding therapeutic need can be addressed in music therapy. For example, a debilitating stroke or road accident may leave an adult survivor with serious physical, cognitive, and communication impairments. As such, the music therapist may plan specific music interventions and approaches to assist this individual in their rehabilitative journey to improve their physical, cognitive, and communicative functions.

In addition, music therapy may also be conducted with well individuals as preventive measures and maintenance of wellness and health in non-medical contexts. 

How can music therapy help?

Through a formal therapy process including an assessment, music therapists tailor music interventions to meet specific therapeutic needs of the patients, clients, or recipients of music therapy services. As an evidence-based practice, music therapy addresses functional goals in physical, cognitive, psychosocial, and communication domains for individuals across the lifespan.

A Music Therapy session involving the drums

Music therapy to improve physical functions:

Developmental delays or disorders, physical accidents, and neurological disorders such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis may hinder a person’s motor development and functions. Music therapy interventions may assist to improve motor coordination, range of motion, balance and strength. Research studies provide evidence for the use of music interventions to address rehabilitative, habilitative, and physical maintenance goals. Some examples may include music interventions to:

  • Improve gross and fine motor coordination
  • Improve gait, walking symmetry and speed, and stride length 
  • Improve balance, which has important implications for sitting, standing, and walking 
  • Improve respiratory strength, which has critical implications for breathing and speaking 

Music therapy to improve cognitive functions: 

Cognitive functions may include attention, memory, sensing and processing, as well as executive brain functions such as reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Illnesses and diseases can cause cognitive decline and loss, thereby resulting in impairments in learning, functioning and quality of life. Persons living with dementia, children and adults with intellectual challenges, and persons with neurological conditions that affect the brain may benefit from evidence-based music interventions tailored to address the following:

  • Improve short-term and working memory 
  • Improve focus attention 
  • Increase attention span
  • Improve cognitive planning and problem-solving skills 

Music therapy to address psychosocial needs: 

Managing disabilities, chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases not only affect the physical health of a person. Often, one’s emotional and psychological states are impacted as well. Music therapy interventions may address psychosocial needs to equip patients and clients with more effective emotional coping mechanisms, thereby improving their quality of life to achieve wellness. Music therapy interventions have shown to be efficacious in:

  • Increase opportunities for emotional expressions through music 
  • Increase sense of autonomy 
  • Decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety 
  • Improved relaxation to better manage pain symptoms 

Music therapy to improve communication and social skills: 

Receptive and expressive communication may be hindered in children and adults with developmental delays, post-stroke patients, individuals with traumatic brain injuries, people living with advanced dementia. Decreased connections with others via communication have implications for one’s sense of belonging to the family and community. Music therapists plan evidence-based music interventions to address speech functions as well as the non-verbal aspects of communication such as:

  • Facilitating turn-taking skills in communication 
  • Increasing speech volume and intelligibility 
  • Improving vocalisation or sound production 
  • Improving word-finding abilities 
  • Increase social interaction

Music therapy for pain and symptom management: 

Pain can be perceived as a disease e.g., chronic lower back pain, as well as a symptom e.g., cancer pain, procedural pain during vaccination or dressing changes. Whether pain is experienced chronically, acutely, or procedurally, the physiology of pain and its related psychosocial implications can be highly distressing and debilitating. Music therapy interventions can be tailored to patients’ needs to help alleviate perceptions of pain symptoms, through: 

  • Release of endogenous opioids e.g., endorphins through engagement in music 
  • Alternatively engaging the person’s attention to the music instead of the pain 
  • Using music as a cue for relaxation
  • Decreasing anxiety, which impact the perception of pain levels

Where can music therapy services be found?

A 1 to 1 Music Therapy Session with an elderly patient

Music therapists work in a variety of settings. This includes early intervention centres, special education schools, acute or community hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, mental health-based organisations, various social service organisations, charities, and also in private practices. In many settings, music therapists work closely with fellow allied health professionals in multidisciplinary teams.