Senior Center

Music Therapy: Does It Work?

By Jan Bolder - February 19, 2014

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Music therapy is a relatively new form of therapy, and works by engaging a person or group of people hands-on with instruments and music. One of the magical things about music therapy is with the right combination, it can work for everyone—seniors, caregivers, youth, adults, the troubled and the not.

How Does Music Therapy Work?

Therapists use music‐one of the most powerful triggers of emotion‐ in a variety of ways to promote wellness, improve socialization and quality of life, alleviate stress and anxiety, and increase memory and communication. It can take many different forms, such as playing themed songs, using instruments to create music, or even just talking about music.

Certain songs or pieces of music are deeply tied to memory and experience, and music therapy can act as a way to unlock that part of the mind. Think back to the most popular song in your teen years, the music that played for the first dance of your wedding, or what accompanied you as you graduated from high school‐all it takes is a couple seconds of mentally hearing it, and you're instantly transported back in time much more powerfully than just talking about it.

What Does a Music Therapy Session Look Like?

The beauty of music therapy is it can look like anything at all, from an individual session to a dozen people in a circle. Typically, though, patients have social, psychological, physical or emotional goals either they want to work on or assigned to them, and the music therapy is structured toward that. If a social goal is the aim, then the music therapy would be designed with increased communication, involvement and socialization in mind, and a more interactive approach might be taken.

Depending on the physical and cognitive level of the senior, music therapists may either make house calls or hold sessions in a central location, and may or may not use instruments. A young adult with Asperger's may be more comfortable heading to a music therapist's office and using a guitar than a 93-year-old with Alzheimer's and arthritis might.But a good music therapist knows how to adapt to each patient and their abilities so they can get maximum benefit.

Who Benefits From Music Therapy?

The short answer is, everyone. But to narrow it down, some of the people most targeted by music therapy have the following:

  • Depression: Seniors with depression who use music therapy were more likely to see a decrease in their symptoms, as compared with those who didn't.
  • Autism: Although research in this area is new, there's speculation that people with autism can improve their communication skills as music may "unlock" them.
  • Cancer: While it's not true that music therapy will remove cancer or beat it into submission, it can be used as a way to deal with the anxiety that comes along with the diagnosis and treatment.
  • Dementia: Music therapy can instantly transform seniors with dementia into people who react to their surroundings. It also shouldn't be viewed as a cure, but rather as a way to manage symptoms and bring out more "better days."
  • General Stress: Living in a nursing home, retirement community or other assisted-living facility can be stressful for seniors, as the loss of independence can take some getting used and music therapy can assist with that.
  • Music therapy is one of the rare things in life that's right for everyone because it can be adjusted in so many different ways.