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What Is Music Therapy? 

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy 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.  Music therapy can improves the quality of life both for people who are well, and those with disabilities and illness. 

Music therapy interventions can be designed to:

  • Promote Wellness

  • Promote Physical Rehabilitation

  • Manage Stress

  • Alleviate Pain

  • Enhance Memory

  • Improve Communication

  • Increase Social Interaction


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   "Music can reach into and express the healthy part in each of us. This state is difficult to experience if mental, physical or emotional problems stand in the way, and music can offer an opportunity to work with these problems,”


-Barbara Hesser (1995, pp. 46-47) in Listening, Playing, Creating: Essays on the Power of Sound.

 Music Therapy For Older Adults

We have all experienced music’s unique ability to bring about emotions, evoke memories of the past, and facilitate communication with others.  For many years, people have reported benefits of music therapy, which utilizes musical interventions to address physical, cognitive, and emotional issues in people of all ages.  In many senior communities, music therapy has been one of the most effective programs that assist older adults in managing age-related difficulties such as general stress, depression, chronic pain, isolation, and even memory impairment.

Music therapy uses specific interventions such as music creation, movement to music, singing, and listening to music to address the unique emotional, physical, cognitive, and social needs of the elderly population.  Each individual or group will receive an assessment test by a qualified music therapist to measure their strengths and needs.  The therapist will then develop a treatment plan that contains interventions and strategies to help the participant meet their specific goals.  


Recent studies have shown that music therapy can help the elderly population maintain good physical and mental health, allowing them to recall old memories and to decrease depression, both common in this age group.  

These are the areas that music therapy can help improve:

   Speech and Cognitive Skills

Music therapy is often used as part of memory care treatments for those with dementia to slow the decline of speech skills. For example, music therapy can inspire non-verbal individuals to communicate by singing or humming.  Music therapy may also improve cognitive ability in older adults.  Recent research has reported that rhythmic music stimulates certain areas of the brain to increase blood flow and improve cognition.  The use of familiar childhood music helps with memory recall and elicits a positive response from people with dementia. 

Physical Skills

Music therapy promotes exercise and movement for seniors through dance and playing rhythmic instruments like drums and percussion instruments.  Through toe-tapping, clapping, and other dancing movements, seniors improve their range of motion despite their limited mobility.  In addition, the rhythm of music improves physical coordination during walking or exercising.  Musical activities promote physical endurance and increase mobility.  

"I regard music therapy as a tool of great power in many neurological disorders -- Parkinson's and Alzheimer's -- because of its unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged."

                                                                                                           -Oliver Sacks, M.D.

Social Activity

Music encourages social interaction, especially when played in groups.  Maintaining social contact with others is extremely important for seniors, especially if they suffer from depression. Older adults make new friends during the process of music therapy which encourages them to  communicate and connect with other members of their group.  The social aspect of music therapy helps seniors alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

A frail 93-year-old woman, referred for music therapy after being diagnosed with major depression, said:  “Now, there is no need to be morose. I can have my music here with me and listen to it whenever I want to feel young.” 

Stress Reduction

Listening to music has been found to help people deal with stress and anxiety by slowing heart rates and reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  In music therapy sessions therapists may use songs with certain rhythms, themes, or lyrics to help people relax and reduce stress. 

Also, some older adults experience agitation and emotional stress, especially when they feel like they are losing their mental faculties.  Playing soothing music has calming effects, helping to improve emotional health.

Ida Goldman (90-year-old testifying at Senate hearings):

"Before I had surgery, they told me I could never walk again. But when I sat and listened to music, I forgot all about the pain," - REUTERS, Aug. 1, 1991.

Background Information


*Reduce pain:

*Lessen effects of dementia:


*Increase motor function in people with Parkinson’s:

Clair, A. A., Lyons, K., & Hamburg, J. (2012). A feasibility study of the effects of music and movement on physical function, quality of life, depression, and anxiety in patients with Parkinson disease. Music and Medicine, 4 (1), 49-55.



*Brain injury:

Bradt, J., Magee, W.L., Dileo, C., Wheeler, B.L., & McGilloway, E. (2010). Music therapy for acquired brain injury. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2010(7),

doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006787.pub2.

See How Music  Therapy Works 

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