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Music therapy for addiction treatment: definition, types, techniques, benefits, and use

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Music therapy for addiction treatment: definition, types, techniques, benefits, and use

Music therapy is the use of music as an adjunct therapy to treat or rehabilitate individuals to improve their psychological, cognitive, physical, and/or social functionalities. It is delivered in a clinical setting and within the context of a therapeutic relationship to achieve specific therapy goals. It is an experiential therapy where the patient immerses themselves in a musical experience.

The types of music therapy are receptive music therapy, improvisational music therapy, re-creational music therapy, and compositional music therapy. The types are based on whether the patient engages actively or passively with the musical stimuli.

The techniques of music therapy include listening, writing, and singing a song; playing a musical instrument; analyzing the lyrics of a song; substituting the lyrics of an existing piece of music; and moving to music.

The benefits of music therapy include reducing anxiety, mental stress, and depression; evoking positive emotions like happiness, excitement, and motivation; reducing blood pressure and heart rate in patients to improve their physical health or manage physiological conditions; encouraging self-expression; reducing cravings and preventing relapses in recovering addicts; enhancing fine motor skills in people with dementia or patients recovering from stroke; improving cognitive abilities in people living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias; assisting in pain management; and improving sleep quality in adults with primary insomnia.

Music therapy is used in community mental health centers, hospitals, physician’s offices, and therapeutic communities. In the context of addiction treatment, music therapy is used in inpatient and outpatient addiction recovery clinics and addiction aftercare programs to promote sobriety, enforce controlled use, or enable harm reduction.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is the use of music as an adjuvant therapy to treat or rehabilitate individuals to improve their psychological, cognitive, physical, and/or social functionalities, according to the definition provided by the American Psychological Association in their APA Dictionary of Psychology, last updated on 19 April 2018.

Music therapy uses music within the context of a therapeutic relationship, which means that the therapy session is planned and led by a qualified therapist. The goals of music therapy include reducing stress, promoting relaxation, lessening symptoms of anxiety and depression, encouraging self-expression, and healing deep-seated traumas. It is used to treat addiction by reducing cravings and preventing relapses.

The various techniques of music therapy focus on helping patients express themselves and bring to consciousness their repressed feelings and traumas to process and eventually, release these. Music therapy is a form of experiential therapy because it involves immersing the patient in a specific experience.

Music therapy is generally not regarded as a primary mode of therapy for treating mental health conditions including addiction. It is a complementary and integrative treatment approach that supports other forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Music therapy suits people of all ages in a variety of clinical settings.

How does music therapy work?

An old woman teaching guitar to a man.

Music therapy works on neurobiological and social levels to promote significant mental health benefits to people with a wide range of psychiatric issues. For instance, according to a 2020 review article by Kawahata et al., published in the Journal of Brain and Nerves, titled “Music and Dopamine – Potential in Movement Disorders,’ experiences involving pleasurable music stimulate the production of dopamine, a “feel-good hormone” that promotes feelings of well-being and happiness.

Music is processed by the amygdala, a region in the brain that is involved in mood regulation. Music stimulates the dorsal amygdala, which is associated with positive emotions. So, according to this 2017 article by Arjmand et al., published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, titled “Emotional Responses to Music: Shifts in Frontal Brain Asymmetry Mark Periods of Musical Change,” listening to pleasurable music has the potential to reduce symptoms of depression.

According to this 2017 article by Ghetti et al., published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, titled “Music therapy for people with substance use disorders,” music therapy stimulates the same dopaminergic pathway of the brain associated with reward as substances of abuse do. It is suggested that music therapy reduces cravings and prevents relapse in recovering addicts by allowing them to experience pleasurable feelings without needing to use drugs and alcohol.

According to this 2008 article by Hajime Fukui and Kumiko Toyoshima published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, titled “Music Facilitates the Neurogenesis, regeneration, and Repair of Neurons,” music increases cerebral plasticity, which is the ability of the neurons to alter the strength of their connections and regenerate, repair, and reorganize after being damaged. Music therapy has the ability to facilitate the recovery of memories in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

At the social level, music therapy encourages self-expression and promotes feelings of connectedness by creating a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental environment where individuals with mental health issues are allowed to be themselves and express their deepest feelings and darkest thoughts. Sharing their struggles with others who are on the same path and learning healthy coping mechanisms from those who have weathered their emotional storms and are now thriving is healing and inspiring.

What are the types of music therapy?

Tibetan Singing Bowls

The types of music therapy are based on active interventions where the patients make music with the therapist by singing a song or playing a musical instrument and receptive interventions where they interact with the music passively, such as by listening. The types of music therapy are listed below.

  • Receptive music therapy: This therapy involves the therapist playing live or recorded music for the patient, which the latter listens and responds to silently, verbally through words, their compositions, or through another modality like dancing or simply tapping their feet, according to an April 2024 publication by the Ohio University on their OHIO News website titled “What is music therapy? Approaches and benefits” authored by Emma Snyder-Lovera. Depending on how the patient chooses to respond to the music, they are encouraged to talk about it and use it to process their experiences and emotions. In other instances, patients choose to respond to the musical piece by interpreting the lyrics of a song and attempting to find meaning in the words. The goals of receptive music therapy include promoting relaxation, enhancing mood, and facilitating reminiscence in individuals with memory issues, such as in people with dementia. Tempo is a critical component of a musical piece that has the ability to affect emotions, according to this 2018 article by Liu et al., published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, titled “Effects of Musical Tempo on Musicians’ and Non-musicians’ Emotional Experience When Listening to Music.” For instance, music with a fast tempo has been shown to promote positive feelings, such as happiness and excitement. For receptive music therapy to be effective, the therapist needs to create customized playlists and adjust the music based on the current emotional state of the patient, their therapy needs, and personal music preferences, per this 2022 article by Giordano et al., published in the journal Scientific Reports, titled “Effect of single session receptive music therapy on anxiety and vital parameters in hospitalized Covid-19 patients: a randomized controlled trial.” The Bonny method of guided imagery and music (GIM) is the most well-known modality of receptive music therapy, according to authors Gro Trondalen and Lars Ole Bonde in the chapter titled “Music Therapy: Models and Interventions” in the book Music, Health, and Wellbeing published in 2012. This method is practiced all over the world and generally involves listening to classical music while evoking positive images aligned with therapy goals.
  • Improvisational music therapy: Improvisational music therapy is a form of active intervention. In this therapy, the patient extemporaneously creates a melody, song, or instrumental piece while the therapist attempts to interpret their emotions from the words or the sounds of their music. According to this 2016 paper by Jinah Kim published in the journal Voices, titled “Psychodynamic Music Therapy,” the premise for improvisational music therapy is that an individual’s personality, psychopathology, psychiatric issues, and repressed or unconscious traumas or conflicts are revealed through music if they are allowed to create it without having to adhere to any rule. This modality of music therapy largely follows an unstructured and non-directive approach. During therapy, the therapist responds to the patient’s needs—expressed by their music—by matching, mirroring, or accompanying them verbally or on an instrument. When the therapist joins in the process of making music with the patient, a strong emotional bond is formed that encourages the latter to open up and be more receptive to therapy. The Nordoff-Robbins approach, also referred to as Creative Music Therapy, is one of the most well-known improvisational methods of music therapy, according to Gro Trondalen and Lars Ole Bonde (2012). This approach has wide-ranging uses in work with children and adult patients. Trondalen and Bonde mention that Analytically Oriented Music Therapy (AOM), a form of improvisational music therapy, is increasingly being used in the US. This therapy is used for exploring the inner worlds of patients to foster greater self-knowledge.
  • Re-creational music therapy: In re-creational music therapy, which is a form of active intervention, the patient plays or sings along to a song or a musical piece played by the therapist. Depending on the patient’s abilities and the goals of the therapy, they sing new or familiar songs or play an instrument they are comfortable with. This is an active form of music therapy administered either in individual or group settings. When delivered in a group setting, re-creational music therapy facilitates social interactions and helps individuals learn social skills like waiting for their turn to express themselves.
  • Compositional music therapy: In compositional music therapy, a form of active intervention, the patient works with the therapist to compose music using words, or one or more musical instruments. According to this 2024 review article by Ishak et al., published in the World Journal of Advanced Research and Reviews, titled “Compositional music therapy: A systematic review of clinical trials,” the modalities of compositional music therapy include, song transformation that involves creating new music from an existing song by writing new lyrics to accompany the original melody or creating a new melody for the lyrics of an existing song; writing songs in individual or group settings; instrumental composition; and music collage that involves creating a musical piece by choosing sounds, songs, and musical compositions to create music. The goal of this therapy is to encourage the patient to express their emotions through music. According to the above-mentioned study, composing music has significant benefits on a person’s high-level cognitive processes, creativity, behavioral responses, and mental well-being. Although compositional music therapy is less commonly practiced than the other three therapies, it is often integrated into the improvisation method. However, the two methods are different. While the improvisation method focuses on the exploration of the inner workings of the patient and the free expression of the self through music, the compositional method focuses on creating an end product, which is a song or a piece of instrumental music.

What are the different techniques used in music therapy?

The different techniques used in music therapy refer to the musical experiences patients go through as part of their therapy. The choice of a technique depends on the personal preferences of the patient, their musical capabilities, the existence of physiological or psychological barriers to creating music, and specific patient needs and therapy goals. The different techniques used in music therapy are listed below.

  • Listening: The patient listens to a live or recorded song or a piece of instrumental music played by the therapist. The therapist plays the music to help the patient relax and/or to promote positive emotions like happiness, hope, joy, and calmness. According to this 2023 article by Blasco-Magraner et al., in the journal BMC Psychology, titled “Changing positive and negative affects through music experiences: a study with university students,” mode, melody, and intervals are three musical elements that have the greatest effect on the perception of emotions. So, the therapist must create a customized playlist based on the current emotional state of the patient and therapy goals. For instance, they play music with tonal melodies to evoke emotions like happiness or joy in patients with symptoms of depression. Musical pieces with ascending melodic directions evoke feelings of happiness and heroism.
  • Playing an instrument: The patient plays a musical instrument of their choice to compose new music or re-create a piece played by the therapist. The patient doesn’t need to know how to play a musical instrument to engage in music therapy. They don’t even have to know music. The therapist guides them by giving simple directions or playing with them. The therapist works with the innate musicality of each patient to create an appropriate and sensitive musical experience that resonates with the patient. They adjust the musical instrument by tuning it or removing a few notes to allow the patient to play any piece without it sounding harsh or jarring. This ensures the musical experience is pleasant and positive. The patient is unbothered that they are not producing harmonious or pleasing music. So, they shed their inhibitions and are able to focus on expressing themselves fully.
  • Singing a song: Singing is a universal music therapy suitable for patients of all ages, musical abilities, and socio-cultural backgrounds. The patient sings a song they are familiar with or they had themselves created, or they re-create a song performed by the therapist. They sing alone or sing along with the therapist. According to this chapter in the 2018 book Case Examples of the Use of Songs in Psychotherapy by Kenneth E. Bruscia, titled “INTRODUCTION Songs in Psychotherapy,” singing lets the patient experience and explore the ideas and emotions contained in the song. As they immerse themselves in the words and the worlds depicted in the song, patients re-discover and/or re-create parts of themselves that they had long buried underneath the layers of persona they had adopted to fit into their reality. They unearth deep-seated emotions and traumas and process these within the boundaries of the song and the safety of the environment created by the therapist. Singing thus becomes therapeutic as patients learn to accept and love themselves.
  • Writing a song: The patient composes lyrics, melodies, or a whole song with help from the therapist. This exercise is an opportunity for patients to express a part of themselves or build a story around their reality, a significant event or relationship in their life, or a powerful emotion they are grappling with. Besides deciding which story of their life they want the song to depict, the patients choose the words, tone, rhythm, and chord that determine how the song will sound. The songwriting process is a powerful form of self-expression and provides therapists with deep insights into their patient’s reality, personality, and past.
  • Substituting lyrics: The patient substitutes a part or all of the lyrics of an existing song with their own words while retaining its fundamental melodic structure. The existing lyrics of a song are symbolic of what is perceived as “given” in the patient’s life, usually a reality that they are having trouble navigating the way they prefer. By allowing the patients to substitute the lyrics with their own words, this exercise conveys to them the idea that they have the power to take back charge of their lives and shape them the way they want.
  • Moving to music: This involves simply tapping the feet or swaying to the music using complex dance moves. The patient does not need to be trained in dance to engage in this therapy. Their dance steps don’t have to be coordinated. They only have to feel comfortable expressing themselves through movement in front of an audience—the therapist, or several people including the therapist if the therapy is being delivered in a group setting.
  • Analyzing lyrics: The patient and the therapist play, sing, or listen to a song and afterward discuss how the patient felt or what they thought of as they engaged with the song and how they interpreted the lyrics. The therapist and the patient together explore the emotions, memories, and images that the latter associates with the song. This exercise allows the patient to identify, examine, and express their feelings and allows the therapist to understand the therapeutic issues involved.

What are the benefits of music therapy?

A woman playing guitar and a laughing buddha statue is on the table.

The benefits of music therapy are listed below.

  • Promoting stress and anxiety reduction: In a 2020 article by de Witte et al., published in the journal Health Psychology Review, titled “Music therapy for stress reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” the authors mention that listening to music has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Stress brings on anxiety. Chronic psychological stress and anxiety have a profound negative impact on the physical health of a person. The above-mentioned paper mentions that music therapy interventions are finding increasing use in managing the stress and anxiety levels of patients in both medical and mental healthcare settings. For instance, according to this 2022 article by Giordano et al., published in the journal Scientific Reports, titled “Effect of single session receptive music therapy on anxiety and vital parameters in hospitalized Covid-19 patients: a randomized controlled trial,” a single session of receptive music therapy significantly lowered stress and anxiety levels in a sample group of hospitalized Covid-19 patients in Italy compared to those in the control group who did not receive music therapy.

  • Inducing positive feelings: Listening to music that one enjoys is associated with increased production of dopamine, according to this 2020 review article by Kawahata et al., published in the Journal of Brain and Nerves, titled “Music and Dopamine – Potential in Movement Disorders.” Dopamine is a hormone that produces feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and motivation; it is nicknamed a “feel-good hormone.” There have been several studies that suggest musical experiences produce positive feelings. For instance, according to this 2023 article by Blasco-Magraner et al., in the journal BMC Psychology, titled “Changing positive and negative affects through music experiences: a study with university students,” exposure to musical stimuli, whether while listening to music or playing a musical instrument, induces positive feelings in individuals afterward. The authors mention that taking part in a musical activity increases positive feelings like excitement and motivation.

  • Reducing symptoms of depression: According to this 2020 article by Tang et al., published in the journal PLoS One, titled “Effects of music therapy on depression: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials,” there is considerable evidence that music therapy reduces the symptoms of depression. Depression is a common symptom of many psychiatric diseases. By reducing the symptoms of depression, music therapy supports the treatment of other severe psychiatric diseases. However, this 2017 article by Aalbers et al., published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, titled “Music therapy for depression,” cautions that music therapy provides short-term benefits to people with symptoms of depression, demonstrating effects like reducing anxiety and improving the functionality of the individuals. Music therapy provided along with treatment as usual has been shown to improve symptoms of depression.

  • Reducing blood pressure and heart rate: According to this 2022 article by Mateja Lorber and Suzana Divjak published in the journal Research in Gerontological Nursing, titled “Music Therapy as an Intervention to Reduce Blood Pressure and Anxiety Levels in Older Adults With Hypertension: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” a trial conducted on 30 older adults with hypertension found that music therapy significantly reduced their systolic blood pressure and heart rate. Although the sample size is small, the authors confirm that music therapy is a safe and cost-effective way to reduce blood pressure and heart rate in older adults with hypertension. According to this 2020 article by Mir et al., published in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension, titled “Relaxing music reduces blood pressure and heart rate among pre-hypertensive young adults: A randomized control trial,” music therapy significantly reduced systolic blood pressure and heart rate in a group of pre-hypertensive young adults who simultaneously followed a low-sodium healthy diet. However, in this 2023 article by Min Cao and Zhiyuan Zhang published in the journal BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, titled “Adjuvant music therapy for patients with hypertension: a meta-analysis and systematic review,” the authors say that more high-quality studies are needed to conclude that music therapy reduces blood pressure. Till then, it is best to consider it as adjuvant therapy.

  • Improving self-expression: Music therapy is a powerful tool for self-expression, especially for people with mental health issues who feel misunderstood and whose struggles are often not acknowledged. According to this 2007 article by Erinn Epp published in the journal Voices, titled “Locating the Autonomous Voice: Self-Expression in Music-Centered Music Therapy,” music therapy reveals a patient’s inner life and their psychological struggles and realities. They express repressed emotions and are thus able to achieve catharsis, a process where unexpressed or strong emotions buried in the subconscious psyche are brought to consciousness, acknowledged, and released. Catharsis is a powerful psychological exercise that is followed by profound positive change and deep cognitive insights.

  • Improving fine motor skills: Several studies suggest that playing a musical instrument improves fine motor skills in children and adolescents. According to this 2006 article by Eugenia Costa-Giomi published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, titled “Does Music Instruction Improve Fine Motor Abilities?“, children who received two years of piano training exhibited significant improvement in their fine motor skills at the end of their training than their peers who did not receive training. According to this 2022 research paper by Berencsi et al., published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education, titled “Musical training improves fine motor function in adolescents,” musical instrumental training has been shown to improve fine motor performance in complex sequential tasks in adolescents and the greater the length of musical training, the better the performance. Musical instrumental training has been used, in conjunction with other therapy modalities, to improve motor skills in a sample of 20 stroke patients, per this 2007 article by Schneider et al., published in the Journal of Neurology, titled “Using musical instruments to improve motor skill recovery following a stroke.” The findings from the above-mentioned papers suggest that music therapy has possible benefits in helping the elderly with preserving and/or improving motor skills, which, in turn, will allow them to remain independent as they age.

  • Supporting addiction treatment: According to this 2014 article by Aletraris et al., published in The Journal of Addictions Nursing, titled “The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs,” music therapy supports addiction treatment in multiple ways. It promotes a reduction in the severity of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger. Engaging with music distracts recovering addicts from environmental and mental stressors that trigger substance use and allows them to experience positive emotions like euphoria without needing to resort to drugs or alcohol.

  • Providing cognitive and emotional benefits to people with dementia: In a 2018 blog post by Alistair Burns and Shelagh Morris published by NHS (National Health Service) England, titled “Music and dementia: a powerful connector,” the authors suggest that music reduces anxiety and depression in people with dementia, helps preserve their speech and language capabilities, enhances their quality of life, calms agitation, strengthens their bonds with their loved ones, and has a positive effect on the caregivers. Reduction in the severity of symptoms like anxiety, depression, and agitation enhances the mental well-being of the patients and improves their relationship with their caregivers, which eases the stress of caregiving. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a common cause of dementia, and several studies note that there is a positive effect of music therapy on people living with AD. According to this 2023 review article by Bleibel et al., published in the journal Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, titled “The effect of music therapy on cognitive functions in patients with Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials,” after listening to music, people with AD showed marked improvement in categorical verbal fluency, which refers to a person’s ability to remember hierarchically organized words and concepts; memories of lyrics; and autobiographical memory or memory of personal events. According to this 2015 article by Jacobsen et al., published in the journal Brain, titled “Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease,” musical memory is relatively preserved in people with different types of dementia, including AD, even when their language and other memories continue to fade. These people are able to engage with music and take part in musical experiences like singing, clapping, dancing, improvising, and listening to music. So, they are able to experience several positive effects of music therapy. However, the positive effects of music therapy on people living with dementia are not universally acknowledged. More research is needed before music therapy is implemented on a wide scale to manage the behavioral symptoms of dementia, including AD.

  • Assisting in pain management: According to this 2016 article by Jin Hyung Lee published in the Journal of Music Therapy, titled “The Effects of Music on Pain: A Meta-Analysis,” there is strong evidence that music therapy is an effective complementary approach to manage and reduce chronic pain. This finding has significant ramifications in the context of mental healthcare settings because chronic pain is strongly linked with depression, and chronic and severe depression, in turn, is known to aggravate the symptoms of several psychiatric ailments.

  • Improving the quality of sleep: According to this 2018 article by Feng et al., published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, titled “Can music improve sleep quality in adults with primary insomnia? A systematic review and network meta-analysis,” listening to music or taking part in a relaxing activity where music is the principal ingredient improved sleep efficiency in several studies on adults with primary insomnia. Primary insomnia is a condition characterized by the inability to fall and/or stay asleep that is unrelated to a medical or mental health condition or the patient’s lifestyle.

Is music therapy beneficial for mental health?

A woman with his daughter playing drums.

Yes, music therapy is beneficial for mental health because it is believed to influence physiological processes that improve psychological well-being. According to a 2020 article by de Witte et al., published in the journal Health Psychology Review, titled “Music therapy for stress reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” exposure to musical stimuli reduces mental stress and anxiety and promotes positive emotions like happiness.

Chronic stress is known to cause, trigger, and worsen the symptoms of many psychiatric illnesses including substance abuse disorders. By inducing feelings of happiness, music therapy has the potential to lessen the symptoms of depression, which occurs with many other psychiatric illnesses.

According to this 2021 article by Lavinia Rebecchini published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity Health, titled “Music, mental health, and immunity,” several studies suggest that music therapy is beneficial for improving symptoms of schizophrenia; enhancing mood; and helping children with autism spectrum disorder communicate more effectively.

According to a 2018 blog post by Alistair Burns and Shelagh Morris published by NHS (National Health Service) England, titled “Music and dementia: a powerful connector,” music therapy helps preserve the speech and language capabilities of people living with dementia, which in turn, allows them to continue having meaningful interactions with their loved ones and caregivers.

Music therapy benefits the mental health of patients by creating an environment where self-expression is encouraged, differences are embraced, and healthy and meaningful social relationships are formed and nurtured. Music allows patients to express themselves freely and fearlessly in a safe, non-judgmental, and supportive environment.

Mental health disorders are perceived as moral flaws and the people with the disorders are laughed at or blamed for their struggles. In such a world, most people choose to keep quiet about their mental health struggles and suppress their emotions. Being able to express themselves without being bullied or ridiculed is a profoundly healing experience. People with mental health disorders often feel alienated and isolated, and sharing a musical experience with others, such as when music therapy is delivered in a group setting, promotes feelings of connectedness.

How is music therapy used for addiction treatment?

Music therapy is used for addiction treatment as a complementary and integrative treatment approach that addresses specific issues related to addiction. It is not the primary or sole form of treatment for addiction. Music therapy is used in addiction treatment to help patients relax when they experience withdrawal symptoms; maintain focus on their healing process; distract themselves from cravings; heal emotionally and physically as they meet the demands of the recovery process; and sustain abstinence.

According to this 2017 article by Ghetti et al., published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, titled “Music therapy for people with substance use disorders, music therapy creates opportunities for patients to connect with others going through similar struggles and express themselves in a setting where they feel understood and appreciated. These social and interpersonal connections motivate people to go through and stick with addiction treatment, which optimizes therapy outcomes. Additionally, these communal experiences improve their symptoms of depression and anxiety and lessen feelings of isolation.

Music therapy works at the neurobiological level to support addiction treatment. Pleasurable music activates the same neural reward and emotional pathways in the brain that substances of abuse do. The article mentioned above suggests that music therapy thus has the potential to reduce drug use and prevent relapse by improving mood, promoting positive emotions like euphoria, and regulating emotional states in people with addiction who cope with and numb powerful negative emotions by abusing drugs and alcohol. Thus, music therapy has the ability to promote and sustain sobriety.

Dopamine is involved in the transmission of pain signals to the brain and the subsequent perception of pain. By stimulating the release of dopamine, music therapy is believed to positively affect the neural reward system and inhibit activity in those regions of the brain involved in transmitting pain signals. The result is a lessened perception of pain and consequently a reduced need to take prescription painkillers in people who are addicted to the substance.

Is music therapy effective for addiction treatment?

Yes, music therapy is effective for addiction treatment because it has the potential to induce benefits on multiple levels—neurobiological, social, and cultural. According to this 2014 article by Aletraris et al., published in The Journal of Addictions Nursing, titled “The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs,” songwriting and lyric analyses induce positive emotions in people with addiction without them needing to resort to substance abuse and drumming promotes mental relaxation and is believed to benefit individuals who have relapsed multiple times.

Moving to music is associated with a decrease in the severity of symptoms of depression, anxiety, emotional stress, and anger. Engaging in musical activity in a safe, non-judgmental environment and in the company of others who are going through similar struggles creates motivation, removes barriers to receiving help, and maximizes treatment readiness. These are positive developments that improve therapy outcomes.

Who performs music therapy for addiction treatment?

A therapist using Tibetan singing bowl.

Music therapy for addiction treatment is performed by board-certified music therapists (MT-BC). These professionals are trained, licensed, and qualified therapists with knowledge of psychology, medicine, and music. They have both postgraduate clinical qualifications and degrees in music. Besides knowing about the psychology and neuroscience behind addiction and its various treatment modalities, music therapists are able to use different components of music, such as melody, tempo, rhythm, pitch, and dynamics, to address the specific therapy needs of their patients.

In the context of addiction treatment, music therapists work to promote abstinence, controlled use, and/or harm reduction, according to this 2017 article by Ghetti et al., published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, titled “Music Therapy for people with substance use disorders.” They work in inpatient and outpatient clinics, community mental health centers, state and general hospitals, physician’s offices, therapeutic communities, and aftercare programs like 12-step groups.