Music Therapy Specialty Areas

The Older Adult

Music therapy treatment is effective and valid with older persons who have functional deficits in physical, psychological, cognitive, or social functioning. Research results and clinical experiences attest to the viability of music therapy even in those who are resistive to other treatment approaches. Music is a form of sensory stimulation, which provokes responses due to the familiarity, predictability, and feelings of security associated with it.

Music therapists offer services in skilled and intermediate care facilities, adult care homes, rehabilitation hospitals, residential care facilities, hospitals, adult day care centers, retirement facilities, senior centers, hospices, senior evaluation programs, psychiatric treatment centers, and other facilities. Music therapists also work for agencies that provide in-home care. Some therapists are self-employed and provide individual and group music therapy services on a contract basis.

Music therapy with the elderly can provide opportunities for memory recall which contributes to reminiscence and satisfaction with life, positive changes in mood and emotional states, sense of control over life through successful experiences, awareness of self and environment which accompanies increased attention to music, anxiety and stress reduction for older adults and caregivers, nonpharmacological management of pain and discomfort, stimulation which provokes interest even when no other approach is effective, structure which promotes rhythmic and continuous movement or vocal fluency as an adjunct to physical rehabilitation, emotional intimacy when spouses and families share creative music experiences, and social interaction with caregivers and families. -AMTA, 2006

Dementia Disorders

For those suffering from dementia disorders, the benefits of music therapy can be vast. Music therapy can help to decrease depression among older adults, increase participation in structured experiences to enhance social/emotional skills, assist in recall and language skills, decrease problem behaviors, assess cognitive ability in people with Alzheimer’s disease and decrease the frequency of agitated and aggressive behaviors for individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Research has clearly demonstrated that individuals in the late stages of dementia respond to and interact with music.

In addition to the benefits for the client, music therapy can also provide a bridge for interaction between an affected person and his family. When working with a person and his family, music therapy can provide a forum to share common experiences and enjoyment, meaningful time spent together in a positive and creative way, and relaxation for the entire family. It can provide stimulation for reminiscence of family bonds, unity and intimacy for families through verbal and nonverbal interaction, respite for the caregiver, and reduction of depression among older adults. Music experiences can also be structured to enhance social/emotional skills, to assist in recall and language skills, and to decrease problem behaviors. In addition, music tasks can be used to assess cognitive ability and to decrease the frequency of agitated and aggressive behaviors for individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Individuals in the late stages of dementia respond to and interact with music. -AMTA, 2006

Hospice and Palliative Care

Music therapy in hospice and palliative care aims to “improve the quality of life by addressing the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs that may arise during this time.” Through a variety of techniques such as song writing, music-prompted reminiscence, imagery, singing, and instrument playing, hospice patients and their families greatly enhance the quality of their time together. Several research studies support the use of music therapy for pain management, anxiety reduction, and relationship closure in hospice care. Music therapy in end-of-life care can impact many areas of a client’s life including their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual wellness.

Music therapy in hospice and palliative care can be used to help alleviate fears and anxieties, reinforce identity and self-concept, decrease feelings of isolation, and encourage participation in physical activity and exercise to promote feelings of vitality and well-being. It can also be used to promote relaxation and alleviate insomnia, to help initiate communication with family members, serve as a source of comfort throughout the grieving process, decrease the perception of pain and the length and severity of the side effects of chemotherapy, aid in the process of life review, and provide opportunities to express emotions in a non-threatening and accepting environment. -MTABC, 2012


Medical music therapy is defined as “the prescribed use of music and musical interventions to help with health. This treatment is used to help restore, maintain, or improve health. It is used to address emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.”

Today, qualified music therapists are employed in many settings including: acute care, surgery, recovery, rehabilitation centers, oncology treatment centers, neonatology, pain management, and obstetrics.

Music therapy in the medical setting can be used to: alleviate pain, calm and sedate, counteract depression, elevate mood, induce sleep, promote rehabilitative movement, reduce apprehension and fear, reduce muscle tension, decrease anxiety and fear, provide emotional support and opportunities to cope with chronic or terminal illness and grief or loss, adjust respiration, lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, improve cardiac output, effect headaches, counteract feelings of isolation, maintain physical activity, maintain social activity, provide a sense of community, provide intellectual stimulation, and provide sensory stimulation. -AMTA, 2006


Music therapy in the rehabilitation setting seeks to “facilitate recovery from loss of function.” The aim of music therapy in this setting is to“meet the needs of the patient in the individual/group setting or to support through co-treat the goals of other therapists on the interdisciplinary team.”

In this setting, music therapists may serve a large variety of individuals with varying diagnoses including: CVA, traumatic brain injury, neurological issues, spinal cord injury, cardiac impairment, arthritis, prolonged reconditioning, amputation, and fractures.

Music therapy goals in the rehabilitation setting may include: increasing cognitive functioning, motor control, communication, decision-making, coping skills, relaxation, self-expression, social interaction, and decreasing anxiety and stress. -AMTA, 2006

Special Needs

Music therapy is an effective therapeutic and educational tool for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Music therapy strategies can significantly affect the skill levels of those with mental retardation, autism-spectrum disorders, Rett Syndrome, learning disabilities, attachment disorder, and cerebral palsy.

When working with developmental disabilities, music therapy can impact an individual’s cognitive skills. Music is an effective means of stimulating and focusing attention and may be especially significant for some people who do not respond to other interventions. Music therapy can impact physical skills. There is increasing scientific evidence that rhythm stimulates and organizes muscle response with a significant assist to people with neuromuscular disorders. The opportunity to participate in music can motivate someone to attempt physical movements that require extra effort. Alternatively, music can be relaxing and can alter perception of pain. Music therapy can impact communication, skills. Music therapy has the distinction of being effective at stimulating and motivating speech as well as providing an avenue for nonverbal communication. Music therapy is also a valuable adjunct to someone who is learning to use an augmentative or alternative communication system. Music therapy can impact social skills. It can help people work on these skills in two ways: by providing a consistent, familiar support for practicing and by encouraging cooperation in the production of a satisfying musical product. Finally, it can impact emotional skills. Music provides many opportunities for expressing and experiencing a variety of emotions. The desire to participate in music and to produce something musical can be a motivation to control emotional outbursts. And music, when it is live, can be changed to reflect or perhaps alter the mood of those listening and participating. The success that so many people with disabilities can achieve in music has a positive effect on self-esteem, as well. -MTABC, 2012

Preventive Health and Wellness

Music therapy has become an active part of the preventive healthcare field. Music therapists work with patients with procedural anxiety and phobias, stress management issues, those in support groups, and individuals with short-term or chronic pain issues. In this type of environment, “music is applied to the therapeutic environment to bring about a desirable change in behavior or response.” Types of goals targeted in the preventive health area including cueing deep breathing and triggering the relaxation response in patients, refocusing attention during procedures, decreasing feelings of helplessness in the patient, deceasing pain, and decreasing anxiety and stress.

Based on the idea that music has the ability to “assist with emotional and physical healing and enhance quality of life and well-being,” music therapy in wellness has begun to develop in recent years. According to Harris 2007, music therapy within the Wellness Model “enhances the strengths and fulfills the needs of the ’whole’ person.”

In recent years, a Music Therapy Wellness Model has emerged that targets a variety of wellness goals including: enhancing quality-of-life, maximizing well-being and potential, increasing self-awareness and self-esteem, addressing stress management and stress reduction as well as promoting personal growth, relaxation, interpersonal connections, and self-discovery. -Mock, 2008


AMTA: American Music Therapy Association.
MTABC: Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.
Harris, J. (2007). Presentation “Music Therapy Wellness Model”
Mock, T. (2008). Presentation “Music Therapy Wellness”
Mock, T. (2011). Presentation “Music Therapy with the Senior Population”
Taylor, D. (2010). Biomedical Foundations of Music as Therapy