The music of Bach brings stress relief
| March 13, 2024 |

Everything You Need to Know About Music Therapy

How musical expression can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression

Music holds a profound power that extends beyond our immediate recognition. Engaging in the creation or consumption of music activates not just our conscious mind but also taps into the depths of our subconscious. This dual engagement allows music to resonate on multiple levels, influencing our emotions, memories, and even our physical responses.

Through its complex interplay of melody, rhythm, and harmony, music can uplift spirits, soothe pain, and evoke a wide range of emotions from joy to melancholy. It serves as a universal language, breaking down barriers and connecting individuals across diverse cultures and experiences. Furthermore, music’s influence on the brain is a subject of ongoing research, revealing its capacity to improve cognitive functions, enhance learning, and foster emotional health and well-being. In essence, music wields a transformative and therapeutic power, shaping our experiences in profound and lasting ways.

Now celebrating 130 years, Gibson was founded in 1894 and has been synonymous with creating, shaping, delivering, inspiring, and owning the “share of sound.” In 1906, Gibson realized the benefits and power of music and music education. Instead of using traditional sales reps to sell instruments, Gibson engaged with teacher agents to get guitars into the lives of students of all ages. Gibson realized early on that getting instruments into the hands of those desiring to make music is a life-changing event for them and that good could come of it.

That sentiment carries through to many avenues of modern expression within the realm of Gibson: helping youth channel their creativity and careers, international relief efforts, scholarships, hosting concerts at the Gibson Garage in Nashville and London, which bring joy to local audiences, providing excellent affordable instruments for songwriting (and luxury instruments, too) as well as being part of the foundational fabric of more esoteric forms of musical application such a music therapy and experimental medical treatments. Instruments can become instruments of change—often vital ones when considered through a holistic lens. Grab a guitar and help us make a difference in the world.

Direct action for lasting results in mental and physical health

In 2021, Gibson Gives—the purpose-driven charitable arm of the iconic American instrument brand Gibson—launched TEMPO—Training and Empowering Musicians to Prevent Overdose. The TEMPO program works with non-profits to provide life-saving training for using the drug Naloxone (Kloxxado® naloxone HCI), which is used to prevent opioid overdoses and offers a support network for recovery from opioid addiction. 

Through TEMPO, Gibson Gives is training musicians, crew members, music industry professionals, and non-profits on how to properly administer Kloxxado®, giving them the ability to reverse opioid overdoses and save lives.

“Losing one musician to overdose is too many,” said Dendy Jarrett, former Executive Director of Gibson Gives. “The heart that each participating non-profit has shown has been inspiring. I’ve been touched by the level of collaboration on this project, and we encourage other like-minded non-profits to join TEMPO.”

With a mission to make a meaningful impact on communities through the power of music, Gibson Gives focuses on providing resources that aim for cultural enrichment and education. The organization donates guitars and other musical instruments to schools, music programs, and underprivileged communities, believing that music has the transformative power to inspire, uplift, and create positive change. 

By providing these resources, Gibson Gives hopes to cultivate a new generation of musicians, improve access to music education, and enrich community life. Through its initiatives, the organization seeks not just to promote the love for music but to foster creativity, teamwork, and emotional intelligence, thereby contributing to the holistic development of individuals and communities alike.

Music as a vital aspect of the healing arts

The field of music therapy is thoroughly interdisciplinary in nature, combining music, psychology, biology, social and behavioral sciences, and clinical practice as a relational service. Both undergraduate and graduate programs exist to help the musically inclined find foundational training for these purposes. 

Music is important for individuals and communities, and its therapeutic powers for physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities are underpinned by research—and it has application across a range of practical encounters in nursing homes, substance abuse programs, hospice care, correctional facilities, and more. 

Here are just some of the venues where music therapy plays a role:

  • Mental health centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Hospice care
  • Medical and psychiatric hospitals
  • Oncology treatment centers
  • Private practice
  • Pain/stress management clinics
  • Schools
  • Senior centers and nursing homes
  • Substance abuse programs
  • Wellness programs
  • Daycare programs
  • Specialized classrooms for students with special needs

How does music fit into societal health outcomes? Artists must first experience inspiration, then take action to create, and then share their finished works with the world with intention. After all that, consumers and clinicians must be moved emotionally, spend time in the musical experiences offered, and perhaps notify others of what they’ve encountered by sharing it. Those are the nuts and bolts of the process—it’s creative, theoretical, and often performance-oriented.

Now, let’s pull the lens back a bit and look at a few large-scale statistics that will help us understand the potential for music as a therapeutic tool. In recent years, the psychological effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing contributed to alarming statistics related to increased instances of depression and anxiety around the world. 

According to the Associated Press:

“Overdose deaths have been rising for more than two decades, accelerated in the past two years, and, according to new data posted Wednesday (November 16, 2021), jumped nearly 30 percent in the latest year.

“Experts believe the top drivers are the growing prevalence of deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drug users socially isolated and unable to get treatment or other support.”

Yet, thankfully, music continues to remain important in people’s lives. The evolving landscape of digital consumption made it possible for music lovers across the planet to consume at a scale that would have been unlikely or impossible in the earlier decades of the last century. Massive libraries of tunes are now merely a click or two away on numerous digital platforms.

The grand scheme of things

Let’s explore the psychological landscape. Does music provide a healthy outlet for negative emotions? Does it act as a balm on wounded psyches? How should musicians view their craft in terms of it being a source of healing in society at large? Are we at a higher risk for mental health disorders as creative people?

From a report published in the Lancet, we learn:

“In a systematic review, researchers analyzed data from dozens of studies that reported the prevalence of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders in the pandemic, calculating that each increased by 28 percent and 26 percent, respectively, last year globally. That’s tens of millions more cases of depression and anxiety in addition to the hundreds of millions already occurring around the world. All told, the researchers estimated there were about 3,153 total cases of major depressive disorder per 100,000 people and 4,802 total cases of anxiety disorders per 100,000 worldwide in 2020, after adjusting for the uptick associated with the pandemic.”

An article by Celine Castronuovo for The Hill acknowledges that “music sales rose sharply in 2020 as more people turned to streaming services for entertainment during the pandemic.” (data gleaned from the Global Music Report). This points to music as a vital part of the connectedness of humanity, especially in times of crisis where depression or isolation become larger factors. 

While we cannot definitively connect the psychological factors with a desire for comfort from a musical experience, the data, alongside a common sense conjecture, does suggest a correlation. It’s important to note that while the motivation toward these streaming services is ascribed to entertainment, there’s no mechanism to measure precisely why someone turned to music unless it’s through direct polling or surveys, so it’s reasonable to assume there were a great many other motivations other than mere entertainment.

IFPI CEO Frances Moore made a statement related to the above report:

“Some things are timeless, like the power of a great song or the connection between artists and fans. But some things have changed,” Moore said. “With so much of the world in lockdown and live music shut down, in nearly every corner of the globe, most fans enjoyed music via streaming.”

Other professionals in medicine and therapy continue to observe the utility of music as a tool of healing. Anne Lipe, Ph.D., MT-BC, writes:

“A diagnosis of ‘Alzheimer’s Disease’ strikes fear and sadness into a family’s heart. There is no cure, and the care of a person with Alzheimer’s Disease can mean heavy financial and psychological burdens for family members. It is important that families facing this situation be aware that there are many sources of help and support. One important source of help can be music therapy.

“Research studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s Disease respond to music at all stages of the disease. For example, in the early stages of the disease, the music therapist can help the person use existing music skills to constructively fill his or her leisure time. Music also can be paired with relaxation techniques to relieve symptoms of depression.

“During the middle stages of the disease, listening to and talking about familiar music can provide a source of comfort and reassurance. Theme-based music therapy groups can challenge cognitive skills, encourage social interaction, and improve mood. Even people in the later stages of dementia can benefit from involvement with music. At this stage, music can encourage communication through eye contact, touch, and changes in facial expression. Favorite recorded music also can be helpful in decreasing problem behaviors associated with agitation or aggression, and singing with or to a person can provide meaningful human contact.”

In conversation with Rick Beato, Sting relates an anecdote concerning how music helps those in mourning and how the whole process of writing songs can do that. Regarding his album “Soul Cages,” he says, “That album, for me, if you’re asking about a record that means something to me, deeply, it’s the Soul Cages, you know, it’s my least understood record in many ways, but it had a constituency of the recently bereaved that will come up because I’d just lost my parents–both my parents died in the same year.

“So, that’s what I was subconsciously writing about, and to this day, people kept saying, ‘Oh, my dad died—that album really meant a lot to me,’ which is very nourishing for a songwriter to hear that your songs have a utility beyond just, you know, your own solace, it actually helps other people, so that album is a very special one for me.”

Finally, author Courtney Marchesani states in her book, “Four Gifts of the Highly Sensitive”:

“Expressive art therapy using art, drama, dance, music, and play can be a great asset to a highly sensitive being who needs help to release pent-up or stifled creative energy. Holding negative memories of trauma or repressing unwanted thoughts can suppress their creative nature. Expressives must create freely and be true to their authentic selves. If they want to be of service, expressives can help others find meaning and significance. This drive might be inherent, born into the sensitive-expressive.”

We all know intuitively that music has the power to improve mood, incite political change, inspire dancing in a community, serve as a vehicle for deeply personal yet universal poetic expressions, and a host of other universal experiences. Because it’s an accepted aspect of reality with research to support the claim, we can also find plausible fictional instances of music saving a life and providing healing. 

For instance, in the film, “Begin Again,” wherein Mark Ruffalo’s character, Dan, contemplated suicide in a bar until he heard a particularly inspirational song during an open mic night performance by Greta, a character played by Keira Knightley. That encounter was also the major plot catalyst of the movie, demonstrating both the healing aspects of it and the shared social construct as well. As the story unfolds, music serves to unite both large and small groups of people together for psychological enrichment as well as the potential for commercial success. This believability is only possible if there’s a corollary to reality. Art imitates life, so to speak. As Detroit native Harlan Howard once said, “Three chords and the truth,” in describing the power of songwriting, particularly in the country music genre.

Pop superstar Jessica Simpson attributed the Nothing But Thieves’ song “Particles” as inspirational and healing during a period of her life when addiction negatively affected her. She said via Instagram, “The whole idea of music heals is an honest truth to me. This song saved a broken piece of me.” Her personal experience with this song led to her releasing a cover performance of it as a music video. 

So, here we have an initial encounter with music, then an inward process in reaction to it, and lastly, a cathartic self-expression that moves out into the world at large. Influences are more than the sum of their parts, and almost any musician is delighted to detail the trail of breadcrumbs that led them to where they operate in the present because they’re telling others about the self. Influences are sometimes a form of shorthand for describing the inner world that artists navigate.

Writing music can also be clearly self-therapeutic. The historical figure, John Newton, composer of the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote its lyrics in 1772 to express repentance from his former sins, including being a licentious libertine and an active slave trader. Later, he would embrace the abolitionist movement in England, all attributed to the God “who saved a wretch like me.” It’s all right there in the lyrics—the confession and the communication of truth to the community as a whole. Songs have the power to do that in both religious and secular contexts. 

The composer William Walker set Newton’s lyrics to the tune known as “New Britain,” and its popularity has grown exponentially, as evidenced by the number of published performances and the ubiquity of its performance within Christian churches. However, according to Wikipedia, the lyrics have been set to at least 20 melodies, which suggests the compelling nature of the lyrics is believed to receive a higher and more powerful expression when set to music. Why is that?

Marchesani goes on to say, “Famous creatives who struggled with mental health issues, such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, mood swings, and hallucinations, include Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Sensitive-expressives are right to fear their own magnificent inner natures. Creative artists have one of the highest rates of depression as compared to other professions that have unpredictable long hours, little control, or increased stress, such as teachers, accountants, and salespeople. If you asked most artists, they would likely tell you that being artistic wasn’t a choice—they live to create.”

All these data points reveal that we have an opportunity to pursue music in our lives in a manner that elevates it above mere entertainment. Through listening and direct participation in playing music, each of us can be a part of one of humanity’s greatest streams of creativity—it’s futureproofed! 

Maybe you’ll find yourself sharing something you wrote with the world and having a positive impact on someone on the other side of the planet. The rewards are endless, even for the amateur seeking personal growth through music composition and skills on an instrument of choice. And, of course, supporting artists financially is an easy first step toward doing your part even if you don’t create music yourself—though learning an instrument is an age-old tonic against many of the ailments of modern society. If you have to be alone for a bit, be alone with a guitar and a purpose in life!

Most importantly, know that free resources exist for the entire planet if you feel hopeless or disconnected from the things that others find invigorating. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help right now:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA)


Also, here’s a bonus link to a Stanford research article about using sound waves to treat heart disease.