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Introduction to Music Therapy & Sound Healing

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Introduction to Music Therapy and Sound Healing
by Rebecca McClary


What is music therapy and sound healing?


To provide a thorough and comprehensive music therapy and sound healing definition, let us first discuss its ancient origins. Many ancient cultures believed that music was an earthly manifestation of spiritual or Primal Vibration, also known as Cosmic Vibration, music of the spheres, universal mind, the Word, Om, etc., all variations of the same basic premise. Primal Vibration purports that there is an energy source, presumably of a spiritual nature, that emanates from the cosmos and impacts all matter on earth. Music is believed to be an earthly manifestation of this energy.


In many cultural belief systems, this imbues music and sound with the ability to heal by drawing energy from the cosmic Source through the earthly vibrations synthesized via musical instrument or voice. This belief contributes to the applied use of music and sound in many of the world healing traditions as the vibrational quality and harmonic ratios were thought to be both healing and therapeutic to the psyche.


When delving deeper into the question: "What is music therapy and sound healing?" it should be noted that, along with the belief in vibrations, ancient cultures also believed that how music and sound was used in society had an impact on the individual. This concept was captured in the axiom "as in music, so in life" which infers that the vibrational content in one’s music reflects what is in a person’s psyche. This idea dominated human history until the Age of Reason, approximately 100 years ago. As new technology advanced, natural ways were considered primitive, thus upsetting the natural laws of the human race and as a result people began to lose their spiritual connection with the cosmos.


As society has moved away from this purposeful attunement with the cosmos one finds social environments becoming fragmented which poses many challenges for individuals to find their way back to one’s true path. Though the cosmic connection has been lost there are ways to find one’s way back to one’s Self through community. An example of this can be seen in how music is used in Africa to connect a person with one’s birthright. It has been recounted that:


When a woman in a certain African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they pray and meditate until they hear the song of the child. They recognize that every soul has its own song, a vibration that expresses its unique flavor and purpose. As the women attune to the song, they sing it out loud. Then they return to the tribe and teach it to everyone else. When the child is born, the community gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her. Later, when the child enters education, the village gathers and sings the child’s song. When the child passes through their initiation to adulthood, the people again come together and sing. At the time of marriage, the person hears his or her song. Finally, when  the soul is about to pass from this world, the family and friends gather at the person’s bed, just as they did at their birth, and they sing the person to the next life. (Cohen, 2003, pg. 48)*


Music, as demonstrated by this tribe, becomes the source for connecting with one’s true Self in life. Occasionally, one may fall out of tune with the cosmic vibration and will lose one’s way. If this should occur during the person’s life [and] he or she commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around the person. Then they sing the person’s song to them. This tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of who we truly are. When we remember who we are and recognize our own song, we would have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another. (Cohen, 2003, pg. 49)*  


This demonstrates that a person's early introduction to music therapy starts from birth. Furthermore, music continues to play a huge part throughout the milestones of the individual's life, up until death.


The spiritual essence of being reminded of one’s uniqueness, of one’s authentic Self is paramount to what happens in the therapeutic process. When one takes off the mask of the persona, one’s shadow nature is revealed. Uncovering dissonant layers, removes barriers and restores one’s vibrational purity.  In this capacity music serves as a mediator for connecting with the spiritual self.


Though recognized for its healing properties for many centuries, music therapy has only existed as a profession since 1950. The education of a music therapist consists of completing an approved music therapy program from one of 70 undergraduate or graduate colleges and universities. The minimum degree requirement is a bachelor’s degree.  After completion of a closely supervised internship the music therapist is eligible to take a board certification exam to become a Board-Certified Music Therapist (MT-BC).


Music Therapy Definition


Music therapists work in a variety of settings including halfway houses, hospice programs, medical hospitals, nursing homes, private practice, psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitative facilities, schools, wellness programs, etc. An introduction to music therapy can systematically address addictive/dependency disorders, brain injury, emotional intimacy, music assisted childbirth, neurological impairments, pain management, physical limitations, reality orientation, self awareness, self expression, speech and hearing impairments, stress reduction, etc.  Music therapists use music to assess cognitive skills, communication abilities, emotional well-being, motor skills, physical health, social development, and spiritual enhancement through musical responses.  Interventions may include active music making, music improvisation, drumming, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance, and learning through music.  Music is processed by the emotions, through mental imagery, intuitively, analytically, and physically. Music is immediate, always changing and moving, encouraging the listener to be present and mindful of what is taking place.  By listening and responding to these energy patterns a person gains insight into one’s own energy patterns. The main priority in music therapy is to address the individual’s needs and problems through music, not to promote or perpetuate music as an art form for its own sake.  Within music therapy, the behaviors of primary interest are those that have a significant effect on the person’s adaptation, education, or development.  Music in this context is used to increase, decrease, modify, or reinforce carefully defined target behaviors.


Music therapists assess for quantitative and qualitative information relevant to the client’s needs; develop music therapy strategies to address short and long-term goals and objectives; provide evidence-based music therapy strategies and interventions to address identified goals and objectives; collect, compile, and document data relevant to client responses and progress, utilizing the findings to make decisions about music therapy services.


As no two humans are alike, no two psyches will respond to music in the same way.  This creates the need for multiple musical genres and interventions to address the psyche’s varied needs. The ability to make music is innate, meaning that all people are musical, rhythmic beings as evidenced by the basic life affirming rhythms of one’s heartbeat, speech, and gait. Playing one’s heartbeat on a drum, for example, enlivens the person’s sense of Self, creating an outward expression of what is within as well as grounding the individual to the moment and providing an opportunity for self expression. Music therapy is non-invasive and has no side effects. Services range from working with new born babies to end of life care.


* Cohen, A. (2003). Song of home. Zento Magazine: The Beginning of a Journey, 2 (4), 48-49.  Makawao, Hawaii: Zento Media Inc.



Have a comment or question? Visit our Music Therapy Forum to start or join a conversation.




About the Author

Rebecca McClary has been a board certified music therapist for fifteen years working in the greater Los Angeles area. She received her undergraduate degree in music therapy from Arizona State University with a minor in Psychology and her Masters Degree in Jungian Psychotherapy from Westbrook University. Rebecca’s primary instrument is the flute but she also plays the guitar, keyboard, penny whistle, ocarina, recorder and percussion instruments. Musical interests include everything from hula dancing to world drumming.


Professional membership in The American Music Therapy Association, Inc. (AMTA) is open to music therapists and other professionals interested in music therapy.  For further information or to become a Friend of Music Therapy contact info@musictherapy.org and view the web site at www.musictherapy.org.





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