Music Therapy

Why music?

Most people will agree that music is powerful and emotive and it can influence us in many ways. It can make us feel energised or melancholy; it can calm us down or make us feel scared (think of the soundtrack of a scary movie!). We’ve always used music: at home, in the car, at weddings and funerals, sports games and for entertainment.

There is a lot of research as to how listening to music and being involved in making music influences us physiologically, cognitively and emotionally. It affects our heart beat, our mood, our brain waves and even our immune system. Making music can be an expressive outlet that exercises our creativity and helps us communicate and connect with others. So music makes for a really useful and effective therapeutic tool.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is using active music making with clinical intention to help children and adults express, process and cope with emotional stressors. Various instruments are used as the client and the therapist make music together and engage in clinical improvisation, song-writing, lyric analysis, movement and music listening. It’s difficult sometimes to explain in words how we feel, but during music therapy, it’s the music and the quality of the person’s playing that says something about the person’s emotional state.

Music therapists are trained to listen to the musical, emotional and relational qualities of how a client plays and engages in music. This means that it is person-centred and each session is based on the client’s needs. The music therapist guides the therapeutic process in order to reach certain goals which can include many things including:

  • Developing self awareness,
  • Awareness of others including listening, sharing, turn-taking and other social skills
  • Improving self confidence and self esteem
  • Sense of agency including initiative, autonomy and ability to cope with change
  • Dealing with loss and grief
  • Creative self expression and play
  • Communication, both verbal and non-verbal
  • Helping to build impulse control and frustration tolerance
  • Building insight and inner resources to cope with traumatic events
  • Improving physical aspects e.g. gross motor and fine motor coordination
  • Cognitive aspects e.g. attention and concentration

Music Therapy is NOT playing whale music to people to help calm them down; it is not pressing play on a CD player; it is not based on eastern religion, new age or energy fields; it is not education focused; it is not based on the therapist’s taste in music.

Who would benefit from music therapy?

Anyone, of any age and any culture, who may be experiencing psychological, emotional or physical challenges can benefit from music therapy. This includes once-off distressing events like a car accident, being in hospital, or losing a loved one, to more long term challenges of having a disability or coping with a long term illness like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Even the most isolated person can have a voice in music. Often children express their trauma, fears or frustrations through difficult behaviours in the classroom. Here music therapy helps cope not only with the underlying stressful situations, but also helps builds on social skills such as listening, sharing and empathy. Music therapy, because of its playful and improvisatory style, is also of great benefit to those who wish to connect with their creative selves. Music therapy is particularly beneficial for the following:

  • Special needs and those with communication challenges, such as those on the Autistic Spectrum, Down’s syndrome, mental and physical handicap.
  • Behaviour difficulties such as excessive tantrums, shyness, withdrawal, aggression, tearfulness, difficulty controlling impulses.
  • Social difficulties such as anxiety, social isolation, poor listening
  • Grief and sadness
  • Illness, hospitalisation, pain management, palliative care
  • Divorce
  • Traumatic events such as car accidents, abuse, domestic violence
  • Dementia and other socially isolating diseases

What happens in a Music Therapy Session?

Sessions contain a lot of music making with various instruments including guitar, piano, percussion instruments like shakers and small drums. Sessions often start with a hello song to help engage the client and greet each other musically. A music therapist plans sessions, but because the work is based on the client’s needs in the moment, often the sessions contain a lot of musical improvisation as we play together. At times we create and write songs to help express emotions, and other times a well known song can be sung to help alleviate anxiety, and turns taken to play various instruments. The use of action songs, movement, singing, dancing, drawing, art, writing and talking are all possibilities in sessions. A musical goodbye greeting helps bring the session to a close.

Session can be individual or group depending on diagnosis and situation and are held weekly. They range from 30-45 minutes in length.

Music therapy training

Music therapists in South Africa have to complete a master’s degree in music therapy at the University of Pretoria, where 8-10 people are accepted into the programme each year. Apart from the course work and dissertation, students work at a variety of places including hospitals, schools, special needs schools, psychiatric institutes and old age homes. Qualified music therapists are required to register with the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA). Music therapists are also encouraged to belong to SAMTA, the South African Music Therapy Association. Music therapy is a relatively young field in SA and there are currently about 45 qualified music therapists in the country.