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Music Therapy and Addiction Treatment

Written by Rob Alston

& Medically Reviewed by Paula Holmes, LCSW

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Last Updated - 08/06/2021

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Updated 08/06/2021

Key Takeaways

  • Music therapy helps restore emotional connection and self-esteem and reduces depression levels.
  • The cognitive and expressive results of music therapy have shown great promise for not only substance use disorder, but for dementia, autism and many other types of mental health needs.

Music therapy is a beneficial treatment modality for addiction. Learn more about its uses and positive effects on those struggling with addiction.

You know about therapy, and of course, you’re familiar with music, but what is music therapy? The treatment modality of music therapy is a powerful tool for engaging deeply with the components of rhythm and melody to treat and heal emotional pain and can be extremely useful for people struggling with drug addiction.

Who Benefits from Music Therapy

Intuitively we understand the benefits of music. We crave it at times; it appeals to our inner world of memory, emotion, and connection. Music therapy benefits a wide variety of mental health needs across the lifespan, which includes those dealing with substance use disorders, as it brings them closer to who they really are and allows them to ease their minds in expressive and creative ways.

Music therapy is also a useful tool for all people as a means of managing stress and anxiety and bringing greater joy to daily life.

Music therapy for autism has shown terrific results. Music taps into parts of our mind that are difficult to reach for some people on the autism spectrum. Similarly, music therapy has been effective for dementia.

The intrinsic connection we have with music is a bit magical; it transcends language barriers and communication issues. The use of music therapy for children has been remarkable; it is useful for all ages and stages and helps with a wide range of emotional health needs.

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How Music Therapy Works

Aside from magic, how does music therapy work? While there is no simple answer to this question, the effects of music therapy have been vast. The use of music therapy taps into our need for emotional expression, challenging areas of rigidity and promoting a safe way to sit with and express a variety of feelings.

  • Attention: In special needs children, music therapy has been effective for improving focus and attention span.
  • Emotion: In studies with adolescents, the use of music therapy indicated an improvement in depression screenings compared to those who did not have music therapy as an intervention. Music therapy helps people connect with their emotions and can expose blocked or rigid feelings. It is also useful in helping with emotional regulation.
  • Behavior: Music therapy can help with behavior modification in children. When children are exposed to music therapy, they can increase social skills and increase emotional regulation which can improve interactions with peers.
  • Cognition: The use of music therapy offers a unique benefit to the neuroplasticity of the brain, which impacts cognitive functioning.
  • Communication: Music therapy offers the benefit of improving communication skills for all who use it. In special needs children, music therapy helps facilitate verbal skills and self-expression in a way that few other treatment approaches can.

Types of Music Therapy

Not all music therapy treatments are alike. There are several types of music therapy and the specific needs of the individual are taken into account to help inform the treatment used.

Receptive Listening Method

Receptive music therapy involves the use of music as a means of relaxing or stimulating a particular emotion. The purpose of the receptive method is to experience the impact of the music and reflect on that experience.

Active Listening Method

The active method of music therapy stimulates more areas of the brain and involves participation in singing, creating and joining in the making of music.

The style of music therapy that benefits an individual depends largely on their particular needs and the goals of the treatment.

History of Music Therapy

Throughout the history of music therapy, there have been great gains associated with the treatment modality. The first mention of music as a form of therapy began in 1789, and music therapy research emerged throughout the 1800s. The modality became a program of study and specialty in the 1940s. The Music Therapy Association was developed in 1998 as a way to unify and strengthen the advancement of the modality. With over 5,000 members, the association is an important resource for treatment providers and their clientele.

How Music Therapy Is Used During Rehab

Music therapy is an effective treatment modality for people recovering from substance use disorders such as alcoholism. The use of music therapy in treatment can help people with addiction work through challenges with self-worth, express emotions and break through defenses that can stand in the way of progress. Because music communicates in a unique way that ties into our emotional wellness, music therapy modality works exceedingly well with substance use treatment.

View Sources

Mtabc.com. “Music Therapy & Chemical Dependency.” Accessed September 14, 2019.

Harmonymusictherapy.com. “How Music Therapy Helps Special Needs Children.” January 9, 2015. Accessed September 14, 2019.

Musictherapy.org. “Music Therapy Interventions in Trauma, Depression, and Substance Abuse: Selected References and Key Findings.” Accessed September 14, 2019.

Altenmuller, Eckart; Schlaug, Gottfried. “Apollo’s gift: new aspects of neurologic music therapy.” National Institutes of Health, February 11, 2015. Accessed September 14, 2019.

Ellis, Alexandra. “Relaxation and Receptive Methods.” Music Therapy with Adolescents, December 11, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2019.

Prakash, Roshni. “Passive and Active Music Therapy: Use of Passive Music Intervention in Music Therapy.” Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Schools. Accessed September 14, 2019.

Musictherapy.org. “History of Music Therapy.” Accessed September 14, 2019.

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