Music as Medicine


Music is perhaps the oldest continuous practice that the human species carries, pre-dating our practices of reading, writing, and numerical systems by at least 40,000 years. Our earliest musical practice must be inferred and reconstructed from fossils and drawings, because we were practicing music long before we had the ability to write down our history. Cave drawings suggest that we were using music as a supportive element of spiritual practice, especially around our experience of death and dying, as early as 35,000 BCE.

Music is one of the ways we carry human life. If you are reading this, you have experienced this aspect of music whether you are a musician or not. Singing “Happy Birthday” to a beloved friend, dancing to music at a wedding, weeping together to grieve a lost family member during music performed at a memorial service, playing a song for grandmother at the nursing home or singing your infant to sleep are examples of the way we use music to engage and carry life.

While music has played various therapeutic roles since the beginning of history, the field of “music therapy” as it is recognized today is relatively recent as a formal discipline. The practice of playing for physically and emotionally wounded war veterans emerged betwee the two world wars of the twentieth century. In this country, the National Association of Music Therapy formed in 1950 and the American Association for Music Therapy emerged in 1971, joining together in 1998 to form the American Music Therapy Association. In other countries, other musical practices emerged in response to a need to heal from the trauma of war. In Japan, the “Talent Education” program of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki is one such example.

Since 1998, the AMTA accredits programs for “music therapists.” Here is a description of their work from the AMTA: Music therapists assess emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities, and cognitive skills through musical responses; design music sessions for individuals and groups based on client needs using music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance, and learning through music; participate in interdisciplinary treatment planning, ongoing evaluation, and follow up.

There are other organizations that license and certify musicians for different kinds of therapeutic practice. The Music for Healing and Transition Program and the Music-Thanatology International Association are two important examples.

Exploring Music as Medicine at Ithaca College is a related, but different, investigation of the various ways all musicians can consciously use music to support health, wellness, and happiness. The “happy birthday” example shows you that anyone can do it, even you! When we play at the bedside of an ailing relative to offer them comfort and support, when we hold the hand of our grandfather and sing to him gently at the moment of his passing, when we make music for children to celebrate, dance, play, and express their uniqueness, when we remind someone experiencing Alzheimer’s disease of the music they listened to during their lifetimes, we are exploring music as a type of “medicine,” offering musical companionship and comfort to those who experience social isolation.

When professionally trained musicians expand the “concert hall” to include “the bedside” or “a hospital room” or “an audience of one,” we must investigate new ways of being with, and reaching, our audience with music. Unlike the highly regulated and licensed requirements of music therapy, we are not training to be therapists: we claim only to be musicians, bringing the powerful art we have carried as a species for the past 4000 centuries. In some sense, not only is this aspect of our practice nothing new—it’s actually ancient, something that has always been a part of musical practice for just about anyone who makes music.

See more information on the Exploring Music as Medicine course here