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What is music therapy?

Seth Johnson




Music therapy, defined by the American Music Therapy Association, is the “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” More specifically, music therapy is used as a treatment option and therapeutically independent from other forms such as pills or other substances. That said, sometimes music therapy is used in conjunction with other therapy options as part of a treatment plan. The focus of this document will be on the role of music therapy in treatment for addiction.


Music can have very strong associative qualities, in that certain genres of music can trigger pleasant and uncomfortable emotions in a person. For this reason, certified professionals use it as a way to calm people before or during stressful times. The picture below depicts music therapy as a way to calm a patient before what looks to be like a stressful operation.                     

What is addiction?                                                                                                                               

It may seem like a simple concept to define, but in fact there are very arbitrary guidelines as to who is an addict and who shows addictive behavior. Instead of forming a hard and fast rule to addiction, the Narcotics Anonymous (NA) group decided to describe characteristics that indicate addictive behavior. Some include: physiological dependence, psychological dependence, family history, behavioral problems and morality. Like many conditions and disorders, intervention is necessary when the compulsion starts to hinder quality of life of the addict and disturbs the people around them because the behavior is more extreme than social norms are used to. For example, it may be normal to occasionally use cough syrup to suppress a cough or sore throat, but when a person begins to use it compulsively and even for its alcoholic properties, they may be diagnosed with an addiction.



How does music therapy intervene in addiction? Ideally, what’s the size of its role?

The greater question of this evaluative paper is to decide whether or not music therapy is an adequate treatment for addiction on its own. Findings will be presented in order to conclude whether or not music therapy is effective enough on its own to treat addiction or should rather be used as complimentary treatment.


What are the potential concerns?

It is very difficult to find information to discount the success of music therapy, as it is already a bona fide evidence based treatment option that has been recognized by authorities in the field psychology and medicine for decades. The only real limitations of music therapy are: its availability and the potential evocation of harmful memories during treatment. Some complain that they do not have access to it because of state Medicaid/Medicare laws. Other skeptics express their concern with the possibility that treatment could rouse negative memories during treatment that could trigger a relapse. That said, music therapists are trained professionals that know how to handle situations like that. As long as the therapy is performed in a safe and healthy environment, there is little chance that a relapse could occur based off one negative reaction to a stimulus. Sometimes it is even part of the treatment plan to discretionally rouse a negative memory in the pursuit of addressing and overcoming the pain of it.


What do the studies say?

        In a meta-analysis study done by Mays, Clark and Gordon (researchers affiliated with the University of Pittsburg’s Healthcare center) in 2008, it was found that music therapy sessions were normally reported as additive and not independent treatment options. Understand that their study did not intend to find whether or not it is most effective to use music therapy as an additive or independent treatment, they merely found what methods were the most popular from other surveys and what is already widely used in professional practice.  

        A study conducted by Dr. Michael Winkelman (department of Anthropology, Arizona State University), examined “drumming activities as complementary addiction treatment” and reported the effects. The outcome of group drum therapy (having participants participate in group drumming circles) for substance abusers “enhanced recovery through inducing relaxation and enhancing theta-wave production and brain-wave synchronization.” In addition, drumming proved to be a win-win treatment option as it was found that addicts enjoyed “pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming alleviated self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provided a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives.” Furthermore, Dr. Winkelman concluded that drumming circles are effective compliments to addiction therapy especially for relapses and when other forms of counseling are unsuccessful.


Drum circles encourage a sense of self and belonging, which is something addicts commonly struggle with.



A study conducted at Florida State by Jones sought to find which form of music therapy worked most effectively in positively changing the mood of subjects that were chemically dependent: songwriting or lyric analysis. Irrespective of forms, the therapy in general was found to increase “feelings of acceptance and joy/happiness/enjoyment and significantly reduce feelings of guilt/regret/blame and fear/distrust.” Jones found that the results were not statistically significant, but the songwriting form of music therapy boasted stronger emotional feedback in 10 of the 11 variables being tested. Furthermore, in a participant follow up 75% of subjects admitted that the therapy was a “significant tool for their recovery.”(


Baker, Gleadhill and Dingle (2007) ran a study University of Queensland to discover how a seven week trial of cognitive behavior therapy would affect substance abusers. A self-report questionnaire showed that participants experienced “predominately positive emotions” and those emotions were experienced to a “moderate or high degree.” Moreover, participants reported that they were able to experience positive emotions through therapy without the use of substances. It is important to note that this study was done with music therapy as the only treatment, not as a compliment to another form of treatment. The authors also encourage the exploration of negative emotions so that clients can experience these in a safe environment.” Above, it was mentioned that some people express concern that negative emotions are inherently bad in music therapy sessions. This assertion provides more of a holistic and educated take on the issue, as it is a better idea to experiment with negative emotions in a safe and regulated environment rather than the person experience it in public or on their own where harm could result.



A study conducted by Formann in Austria compared results of music therapy on alcoholic subjects and patients with neurotic personality disturbances. It was found that music provided a “substantial contribution in reinforcing the basic ethical concept of the person concerned.” The reinforcement of ethical concepts is what most addicts struggle with, which is what makes these results successful. The therapy succeeds in bolstering moral values and “stops further deterioration instinct.”  While this is an outcome that is consistent with the above findings, this study goes to the measure of claiming that “music therapy will never develop from an ancillary treatment into a therapeutic method in its own right.” That being said, the authors feel that it is necessary for therapists to be ready to deviate from “traditional lines of musical concepts” in order to better adapt to the specific needs of the patient. It is clear that this author feels music therapy will never be strong enough to exist as an all-encompassing a treatment modality.



What is the verdict?

        The trend seems clear, that music therapy should be used as an additive to an already successful treatment plan. The general consensus seems to outline the argument that music therapy is just too weak to make a substantial difference by itself. This is not to say that music therapy by itself serves no purpose. In Jones’ study, he merely compared the effectiveness of two separate forms of music therapy. Both were already accepted as successful methods of treatment – his study was directed to find how rather than if each method was effective. In Baker, Gleadhill and Dingle’s study it was proved that music therapy by itself influenced the minds of addicts for the better. There is no question music therapy works by itself -  It just seems like the supplemental use of it is an issue of practicality. Professionals feel that it makes more sense to guide a patient toward faster recovery as there are quicker ways to recovery than music therapy by itself.



1.   American Music Therapy Association Inc. 2005. “What is music therapy?” <>

2.   Narcotics Anonymous. 1996. “What is addiction?” <>

3.   Mays, Kara L. Clark, David L. Gordon, Adam J. 2008. “Treating Addiction with Tunes: A Systematic Review of Music Therapy for the Treatment of Patients with Addictions.” Substance Abuse, Vol. 29, Iss. 4. October 2008 , pp. 51 – 59

4.   Winkelman, Michael. 2002. Complementary Therapy for Addiction: “Drumming Out Drugs.” American Journal of Public Health.  Vol. 93 Iss. 4 pp. 647-651.

5.   Jones, JD. 2005. “A comparison of songwriting and lyric analysis techniques to evoke emotional change in a single session with people who are chemically dependent.” Journal of Music Therapy. Vol 42 Iss.(2) pp. 94-110.

6.   Silverman, Michael J. 2003. “Music therapy and clients who are chemically dependent: a review of literature and pilot study.” The Arts in Psychotherapy
Vol. 30, Iss 5, pp. 273-281

7.   Baker, Felicity A, Gleadhill, Libby, Dingle, Genevieve. 2007. “Music therapy and emotional exploration: Exposing substance abuse clients to the experiences of non-drug-induced emotions.” The Arts in Psychotherapy. Vol. 34. Iss. 4. pp. 321-330

8.   Formann, Radi. 1980. “Music therapy in the behavior therapeutic combined treatment concept. Comparison between alcoholics with neurotic personality structure and patients with behavior disturbances.” Psychosom Med Psychoanal. Vol. 26 Iss. 3 pp.282-95.

9.   Scumdoctor. “Strenghts and Limitations of Music Therapy.” <>






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