If you’ve ever made a workout playlist or felt a wave of emotion when you heard a familiar song playing at the grocery store, you may already use music therapeutically.
Hearing a song a parent loved might feel comforting while hearing a favorite song from your high school years might boost confidence. When you know how your body responds to songs, you can use them strategically. You can choose music to help you relax from stress, process sad feelings or give you an energy boost. The same is true for children.
“You can learn a lot about how kids are coping, what they’re feeling and what they relate to by the songs they share with you and the songs they sing over and over,” said music therapist Destiny R. Boyum, MT-BC.
Music therapy uses music to bring up emotions and start conversations that help clients process their feelings. Music therapists train in a variety of subjects including music theory, anatomy and counseling. They work with everyone from newborn babies to people receiving end-of-life care.
How music can help mental health
Music therapy has shown to:
- Decrease anxiety.
- Decrease blood pressure.
- Decrease pain symptoms.
- Elevate mood.
- Improve quality of life.
- Slow heart rate.
You don’t need the voice of an angel or the latest dance moves to get the benefits of music therapy. There’s benefit in listening to music as well as creating it. In a session, a music therapist might play an instrument, sing or use recorded music. They encourage clients to interact by moving to the music, singing along, discussing themes in the music or even picking up an instrument themselves.
“A lot of times music brings up emotions,” Boyum said. “Sometimes unexpected emotions. Sometimes when I start playing, people will just immediately start crying. It can be a great launchpad to have conversations about grief and difficult life changes.”
And sometimes it’s enough for the person to just acknowledge their feelings.
“I think we’re so trained to avoid our emotions, and just shove them down and not recognize them,” Boyum said. “But sometimes just letting them surface and exist helps people heal and grieve as they need to. It’s permission to feel your feelings.”
Music can calm babies
Familiar voices and repetitive sounds calm babies who don’t yet know how to soothe themselves, Boyum said.
“When babies are in the womb, they’re exposed to a heartbeat,” Boyum said. “The repetitive rhythm is a very natural thing.”
Caregivers instinctively soothe babies through swaying, humming or singing. These calm, repetitive behaviors are all linked to music. Babies respond physiologically with a lower heart rate and slower breathing, which can help ease them to sleep. Each time a caregiver helps calm babies, babies are making connections that will help them learn how to calm themselves.
“We encourage parents to sing to babies and to talk to them,” Boyum said. “And even if you don’t think you’re a good singer, your baby loves your voice more than anything.”
One way to calm your baby when you can’t be near is to record your voice. The caregiver can play the recording to help the baby soothe and regulate. You can even sing the same song over and over since babies love a familiar melody.
Songs that have predictability and repetition are more likely to promote sleep and relaxation. Your baby also may respond well to a sound machine that can play predictable and consistent sounds that also mimic being in the womb.
Music reduces anxiety
Just as repetitive movements and sounds calm babies, they can help ease anxiety in older children.
Boyum suggests encouraging children to interact with music. You might notice toddlers dancing like no one’s watching or singing along to music. This is a good time to start encouraging dance parties or letting a child play a small drum or a shaker to a song.
These repetitive moments can help calm a worried or stressed child. The child has to use multiple body systems to move to the music. That keeps them focused on the present moment and not anxious about what might happen in the future.
As children get older, learning to play an instrument, making up a dance routine or writing their own song lyrics could help alleviate stress and anxiety. Creating their own music can give a sense of control that might be missing in other areas of their lives.
“I spent so much time in the hospital teaching teenagers how to play ukulele,” Boyum said. “They love it. It’s an easy instrument to learn and be like, ‘I can play Billie Eilish.’ And that’s great. It gives a sense of autonomy.”
Music helps kids build emotional intelligence
Parents and caregivers can also use music to help kids identify basic emotions. Movies they are already familiar with, like “Frozen,” can be a great place to start. Ask your children how they think the character Elsa is feeling when she sings “Let It Go” and what is she letting go of? Help little kids recognize how the mood changes throughout the movie. Many of these songs are packed with powerful themes like self-discovery, grief and shame.
Then practice as you listen to music at home or in the car. Even a song without lyrics can pack emotion. Ask your childr how the song makes them feel. From there, start paying attention to what songs children choose on their own.
Even from a young age, we gravitate toward music that helps us navigate our feelings. But what we choose varies by person, Boyum said. For example, when some people are going through a sad time, they might choose sad music to validate their feelings. Other people might choose something upbeat to help them shift their mood.
Parents can encourage kids to think about their emotions and how music might help them. One way is using digital music services to make playlists for various moods. See if they can identify songs that make them feel better.
“Often they’re already doing that,” Boyum said. “But this is a way to be more intentional with it.”
As kids grow, they start to gravitate away from the family’s usual genre. It’s a way of discovering who they are and establishing their sense of self. Parents aren’t always comfortable with their kids’ music choices.
“Throughout history there has always been some discomfort from parents about what their children listen to,” Boyum said. “In the ’50s rockabilly music was a rebellion of youth, and often had themes of sexual freedom and expression. The adults of the time could not understand the appeal of Elvis and shaking his hips on TV. Almost every generation has an anti-movement to the music of the previous generation.”
If you’re concerned about the music your children are listening to, ask them about it, Boyum suggested.
“Ask them what they like about the songs, and calmly explain why they make you feel uncomfortable,” Boyum said. “Oftentimes we connect with music for the lyrics, and other times we connect with it for the instrumentation and the beat. Sometimes we’re not listening to what songs are really about. Placing restrictions on what they listen to without genuine discussion likely won’t change what they connect with. Attempt to understand what they are getting out of the music and keep an open mind.”
Also keep in mind that adolescents will try out different musical styles as they figure out what speaks to them and what matters to them. If they try out a genre that you’re not comfortable with, be patient with their development. Music is a relatively safe way of “trying out” who we want to be.
Could a music therapist help my child?
Learning how music can help with mental health and how to use music therapeutically can have a great impact on your child’s overall mental health. Music therapists are trained professionals who can take this work one step further and empower youth and adults through music to address nonmusical goals. Music therapists work in hospitals, schools, corrections facilities and other settings. Many hospitals, including Mayo Clinic, offer music therapy at no charge for patients. Group and individual sessions are also available in the community. One-on-one sessions will be tailored to the individual’s needs. Group sessions will vary depending on the setting and mutual goals. They might combine writing lyrics or hands-on instrument work with wellness themes like communication styles, setting boundaries or building support systems.
Insurance coverage for music therapy varies by state. It’s not currently covered in Minnesota.
Find board-certified music therapists offering individual or group sessions at musictherapy.org
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