Using Music Therapy to Move Past Trauma

MUSIC THERAPY AND TRAUMA, Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom: music therapy

The healing power of music isn’t an overused phrase—there are many scientific studies that reinforce how music boosts your mood, stimulates the brain’s reward center, and provides comfort. More than simply streaming your favorite song, music therapy provides a structured but restorative approach to trauma recovery.

Understanding Music Therapy for Trauma

Professional music therapy interventions are used to address someone’s psychological and physical trauma symptoms. The goal of this generally non-invasive technique is to help an individual access their feelings and express them, as well as learn effective coping methods to use whenever they feel triggered. 

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) indicates that early forms of music therapy began in the early 1800s. By 1941, three different organizations formed: the National Society of Musical Therapeutics, the National Association for Music in Hospitals, and the National Foundation of Music Therapy. All had a significant impact on education and research into the practice. 

In the decades to follow, more mental health professionals began to use music therapy in various ways as another level of personalized treatment, especially in institutionalized settings but also in private practice. By the 1970s, “music therapy clients also now included elderly people in nursing homes, individuals in rehabilitation settings, patients with medical conditions, and prisoners.” 

Trained music therapists work with clients to:

  • Assess their condition and level of functioning
  • Create an individualized treatment plan
  • Implement “goal-directed music experiences using a variety of methods such as improvising, composing, re-creating, and listening” as well as music-based relaxation activities, lyric and songwriting analysis, and maybe even a combination of music and art therapy
  • Evaluate the effects of treatment based on an individual’s current condition and goal progress

More importantly, music therapy instructors recognize that simply knowing music isn’t enough to address all the needs of people with trauma. In an interview with Majoring in Music, Kimberly Sena Moore, a board-certified music therapist and associate professor, said “trauma-informed training does not look like a one-time continuing education course. It should be integrated into every course in some way. It’s becoming more and more apparent as to how early trauma with or without attachment wounds impacts the psychological well-being of the populations that we serve. This ranges from geriatric to pediatric, from physical rehabilitation to hospice.” 

In the same article, professor and board-certified music therapist Katurah Christenbury stated that “music therapists need to be aware that trauma manifests for different people in different ways, including anger, withdrawal, sexual acting out, and addictive behaviors.” She adds that it is essential to be “open and accepting of each person’s journey, religious beliefs, views of humanity––especially if they’re different from one’s own.” 

Benefits of Music Therapy for Trauma

The National Library of Medicine indicates music therapy is a potential tool to help “reduce symptoms and improve functioning among individuals with trauma exposure and PTSD…and may help foster resilience and engage individuals who struggle with stigma associated with seeking professional help.”

For example, ATMA’s fact sheet on music therapy for military service members and veterans notes that it can help bolster the following characteristics, which we provide verbatim: 

  • Functional and expressive communication
  • Physical and neurological functioning
  • Emotional and social wellbeing

Utilizing music therapy for trauma can also strengthen interpersonal, coping, and pain management skills, as well as improve cognition and increase self-awareness and self-expression.

However, there are some potential concerns for certain individuals with trauma history and how music therapy might affect them. 

  • First, some researchers point out that just as not all forms of talk therapy help each individual, alternative approaches such as music therapy might impact people differently, and not always with the same degree of success.  
  • Additionally, ATMA states that certain symptoms, such as intense auditory or physical sensitivity or direct trauma-related associations, might cause some people to have a negative response to music therapy.
  • Comorbid health issues, such as a higher degree of PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or acute substance abuse, could also prevent some people from benefiting from music therapy interventions.

In 2019, music therapy professors from the University of Dayton stressed how important it is for therapists to consider possible risks of music therapy for particular clients and to share this knowledge with clients. 

To make certain you or a loved one receive the best possible treatment, research methods carefully, and seek out an approved provider through a governing body such as  the Certification Board for Music Therapists

Seek Out New Holistic Care Solutions at Cottonwood

Trauma-informed care is one of the most individualized treatments imaginable. As such, not every alternative holistic option—such as music therapy, EMDR, brainspotting, and others—will strike the right chord with every person. All the more reason to put your trust into qualified professionals who can guide you through different healing solutions safely. Talk to a member of our admissions staff to learn what our experienced Tucson team can do for you. 

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