Music as Medicine

First in a series of articles on music as therapy and music as medicine

Music therapy is the skilful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development.

This is how music therapy was described by the Canadian Association of Music Therapy (CAMT) at its Annual General Meeting in May 1994, and is still used today to describe this form of therapy that has wide-ranging uses and benefits. Music therapy is used in a variety of settings in the public and private sector. The clients range in age, and musical backgrounds, including not having any background at all, but just an appreciation for music, and a willingness to try this therapy.

Music therapy has been successfully used in all types of care including pre and post-natal, neonatal, oncology, and geriatric. Victims of violence and abuse, and those with substance abuse and mental health issues have also had positive outcomes. CAMT researchers say that music as therapy can be beneficial with many patients including, but not limited to those with:

  • Acquired Brain Injury
  • AIDS
  • Autism
  • Developmental Disabilities
  • Emotional Traumas
  • Hearing Impairments
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Physical Disabilities
  • Speech and Language Impairments
  • Visual Impairments

In a recent interview on TVOntario, Lee Bartel, Professor and Associate Dean of Research at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music was asked about the difference between music as medicine and music as therapy. In classic music therapy, Bartel explained, the benefits are psychosocial—and are between the therapist and the client continuing to use music to accomplish certain things in the therapy sessions. “Music as medicine, on the other hand, would be something we might better describe as a prescription…Take two songs and call me in the morning kind of thing,” Bartel said.

Heidi Ahonen, Senior Music Therapist and Professor at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, ON, worked with patients who had Parkinson’s disease and she found that listening to low-frequency sounds for a period of 30 minutes helped to decrease symptoms. The prescription was the low-dose sound, and the dose was 30 minutes. “That was not about the patient’s relationship with Heidi at all,” Bartel said, “It was about the patient coming in and being given a dose of sound. That is music medicine in its purest form.”

More research is being done, and is being done collaboratively among universities and hospitals in Ontario, including the University of Toronto, Wilfred Laurier University, Mount Sinai Hospital, and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, Toronto. This may lead to even more breakthroughs and is leading to the development of more research facilities, which are expected to open in the next few years.

In subsequent articles, we’ll delve more into the research being done, and more of the benefits and impacts of music as therapy, and music as medicine.

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