by Robin B. James, MLS

I am a librarian, I love to explore ideas. This is a quick survey of some popular techniques for using music for healing and growth. My intention is to identify the ways that music therapy has developed, possibly leading to opportunities for deeper research.

What is music therapy? For me personally, I think of music therapy as how I justify constantly singing along to my favorite songs, my musical whim of the moment. I believe that all humans love music, and there are many beneficial properties of this invisible substance. For example, in a really tense setting, sometimes submerging myself into listening to music as a meditation, and letting go of my thoughts can save the day. The music provides relief by taking me on a journey away from the tension to a setting that I choose. For a musician, playing puts them into a better space, a place they soar and become absorbed into the craft, somehow ecstatically excluding negativity. But from my recent reading I learned that there is much more to Music Therapy. What I would like to do is to present some of the clinical applications of this notion of healing music and music therapy. My intention is only to gather and weave together what I have so far found as I explore the concept of music therapy.

Music therapy ranges from simply listening to soothe the savage beast, to scientific and medical clinical applications, to actively creating music by singing and by playing instruments. Motion of the body is a natural aspect of enjoying music, some therapies blend music and motion. The therapy could come from the simple distraction from pain or confusion as the mind focuses on sound rather than whatever else is bothering the patient. The side effects of this prescription are pretty much harmless, you just listen and learn to relax. The therapy can also come from using the brain to coordinate mechanical motion with the senses including hearing and all other forms of perception. 

Here are several well known theories: Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT), Nordoff-Robbins, Dalcroze Eurhythmics, The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, Kodaly and the Orff-Schulwerk educational approaches. None of these practices claim to be the one and only true method, because they are all do basically different things. What is music? This question has launched many careers. Music is time based, it employs patterns that are unique to our perceptions, and communicates emotional expression. This seems like a curious practice unique to humans. Can we assume that it is only humans who set out to express themselves deliberately? Do whales and birds compose songs? How would we know? Recognizing patterns may be different for a whale or a bird than it is for a human. Does the urge to procreate cause all creatures to express themselves so enthusiastically? Perhaps animals do mindfully create or improvise sonic expressions, communicating and rhapsodizing, this is interesting to consider.  Humans have developed methods for recording musical thought, for choirs we developed wave-shape notes, to classical forms and coded marks on paper, and now we can simply record and replay music or audio ideas and expressions. 

Music Therapy is a unique application of this thing called music, whatever music is. According to The Music Therapy Maven, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ music therapy session. A music therapy session will look vastly different depending on who we work with and where we work with them.” 

Mood elevation is probably the most obvious benefit of music, providing simple distraction from pain. Linking sound to movement and learning to dance provides motion and exercise which is very important to good health. Rehabilitation of damaged motor skills is assisted by using music. Perhaps the biggest place for developing the value of music is in early education.


Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT)

This is a purely medicinal application of music to healing. A research-based system of standardized clinical techniques for sensorimotor training, speech and language training, and cognitive training. These treatment techniques are based on the scientific knowledge in music perception and production and the effects thereof on nonmusical brain and behavior functions, benefiting patients recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, cerebral palsy, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and other neurological diseases affecting cognition, movement, and communication (e.g., MS, Muscular Dystrophy, etc) addressing rehabilitation, development, and maintenance of functional behaviors.

According to the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy, “Research has shown that rhythm and music affect multiple areas of the human brain at once on a subconscious level. Because of this fact, rhythm can be used to help build new connections in the brain (called neural pathways) thus improving a subject’s brain function and allowing them to lead more productive and functional lives.” 


This is a method for exposing autistic people to creating music. Practitioners of the Nordoff-Robbins approach hold that music therapy can help a child with autism to communicate, it can unlock forgotten memories for those living with dementia, and it can provide comfort and celebrate the life of someone facing a terminal illness. Everyone possesses a sensitivity to music that can be utilized for personal growth and development.

According to The Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy, “Music therapy is a specialist use of music that aims to facilitate physical and emotional wellbeing, and to promote the development and retention of key communication skills. A wide range of instruments can be used in music therapy, including the voice, and the music created is often improvised. Music therapists support people to develop their own ways of being musical in order to explore their potential and connect with the world around them…our mission is to bring life-changing music therapy to as many people as possible.”

Dalcroze Eurhythmics

This is a combination of music appreciation, ear training and improvisational motion. The body is the main instrument, and students connect music, movement, mind and body. The word Eurhythmics is Greek for “good rhythm” and note values and rhythms are represented by stepping and clapping, which helps develop ear-training and sight-singing skills using instruments, movement, and voice.

The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music

This is a method of listening. The Bonny Method was named after Helen Bonny, who developed methods for stimulating journeys of the imagination in the early 1970s at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, as part of the federal government’s research into the consciousness-expanding effects of LSD. She began by combining relaxation techniques and classical music selections, and quickly realized that the drug has nothing to do with the benefits of music, so she went on to explore new approaches without the drug. 

My personal experience with guided imagery is basically a form of cathartic story telling, also this approach can be often associated with the practice of yoga. The task of the therapist is to develop an understanding of each individual patient, for example, the idea of sailing might be familiar to one person, and mysterious to another. The patient relaxes, usually prone and with dim lighting, and the therapist produces a story while music plays, guiding the patient with the intention of creating a narrative event that provides psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions. The task of the yoga master is simply providing a spiritual or philosophical lesson.

That is my experience, please understand that there are many more considerations and my intention at this time is to quickly survey these notions of musical therapy. For more information, here is a video clip about guided imagery and music, also you can go directly to the Association for Music & Imagery.

Zoltán Kodály

This is a philosophy of the musical education of children. Kodály was born in Kecskemét, Hungary, on December 16, 1882, and his renown as a music educator is almost as high as his reputation as a composer. He was interested in the problems of music education, and wrote a good deal of educational music for schools both inside and outside his home country, he laid down a set of principles for music education and created what is now known as the ‘Kodály Method.’ The objective is to train all children to sing, play instruments, as well as to dance from memory, with a large number of traditional singing games, chants, and folk songs, drawn first from the child’s own heritage of folk song material and later expanded to include music of other cultures and countries.

According to the ‘Kodály Method,’ students perform, listen to, and analyze the great art music of the world, thus achieving mastery of musical skills, such as musical reading and writing, singing and part-singing, as well as learning to Improvise and compose, using their known musical vocabulary at each developmental level. Rhythm symbols and syllables are utilized, with hand signals and singing do-re-mi (etc.) to show tonal relationships. All children can sing and be successful, hear it first, then sing, then understand, then read and write, and then create.


The Orff method, or “Music for Children,” is a developmental approach used in music education, combining music, movement, drama, and speech into lessons that are similar to a child’s world of play, engaging their mind and body through a mixture of singing, dancing, acting and the use of percussion instruments, like xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels.

According to Espie Estrella, in an article updated on May 25, 2019, about The Orff Process, “A key characteristic of this approach is that lessons are presented with an element of play, which helps the children learn at their own level of understanding. Musical concepts are learned through singing, chanting, dance, movement, drama and the playing of percussion instruments. Improvisation, composition and a child’s natural sense of play are encouraged…Using the Orff approach, students learn about rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, form and other elements of music. Students learn these concepts by speaking, chanting, singing, dancing, movement, acting and playing instruments. These learned concepts become springboards for further creative pursuits such as improvisation or composing their own music.”



There are many specialized applications for music therapy, and I have looked at six of them:

  • Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) provides methods for clinical recovery and rehabilitation
  • Nordoff-Robbins provides methods specifically for some types of autistic people, creating music for emotional release
  • Dalcroze Eurhythmics links sound and motion to facilitate the development of motor skills and a sense of rhythm 
  • The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music provides new ideas for advanced forms of listening
  • There are two major educational approaches to music, Kodaly and Orff-Schulwerk.

Enjoying music is something that all humans seem to share. What they listen to is not so easily agreed upon, but the act of listening to music is a part of most people’s lives, as far as I can tell. There are as many different ways of finding therapy from music as there are individual people, instruments, compositions and settings. These specific methods are all helpful and provide a meaningful path for specific problems and diseases, ranging from designating a time to relax, to actively requiring the body and mind to work together to achieve either the creation of music or the expression of motion or even graphic art. In general, musical therapy utilizes the power of music to interact with human emotions and affect well-being, although there are several different types recognized in the world today. There are various different psychological theories for musical therapy, which define the different types as we know them.