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Music as Medicine: Healing and Rehabilitation Through Music Therapy

Updated: Oct 31



Every year, we all have the opportunity to pay our respects to those who have served our country honorably during war and peacetime on Veterans Day. Unfortunately, military veterans face many challenges that come with protecting our country and putting their lives at risk for every one of us. It can be difficult for veterans to reintegrate into civilian life, especially for service members that have been wounded in battle. Often, these wounds aren’t physical, but rather mental trauma. When healing from PTSD, depression, anxiety, or issues related to traumatic brain injury, music therapy for veterans can be quite a success and it’s the least we can do. In anticipation for Veterans Day, one way we can honor veterans and their families is by helping them find peace through music!


Music therapy for veterans is one of the most effective treatments for mental health issues facing former military personnel. It is all-natural and non-invasive! Music is soothing to the soul, and it can also heal the mind and body. For veterans as well as active duty military, music therapy programs provide powerful tools for overcoming post traumatic stress disorder and other struggles they are faced with day by day.


Before we continue, you may be wondering, what exactly is music therapy and can it really “heal” the mind and body? Music therapy can be simply described as the process of using songs and instruments to help achieve therapeutic goals in a clinical setting. In 1950, the American Music Therapy Association was created to serve veterans after volunteers saw the positive impact music had on WWII veterans. Today, music therapy has become a popular field among both mental health professionals and similarly educated musicians branching out to help not only veterans, but other individuals with mental health disorders as well. Many studies have since then confirmed the success of music therapy in treating different problems for patients, particularly veterans.


Music therapy services are now available to veterans of all wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan. With the guidance of trained, board certified music therapists, veterans and other individuals can overcome whatever issues they may be facing. Now let’s take a look at more in-depth information on the benefits of music therapy and how it truly soothes the soul and heals!



Music Can Help Improve Communication


Think about whenever you listen to a song you enjoy - more often than not you may begin bobbing your head, tapping your foot, or starting to sing and hum. This is just your mind and body communicating to your brain how the sounds you hear make you feel. These are some of the exact types of responses that can help slowly improve others’ communication over time. Often, veterans have difficulty with communication when they return from service. This may be due to several reasons, including psychological issues that prevent them from expressing themselves (such as PTSD), or even physical injuries that can affect their speech.


By listening to music or learning to play an instrument, veterans have a new way to connect with other people. Listening to music can help express a wide range of emotions, just like how you listen to sad music when you’re feeling down or instrumental music to help study or stay focused. Playing an instrument can also display a wide range of emotions with instruments like the drums allowing you to exert a lot of built up energy. Music allows us to express ourselves in ways regular speech can’t.


Additionally, music therapy can help rehabilitate veterans with physical speech impediments. Singing, in particular, is a very effective way of retraining speech muscles and vocal production. The neural pathways that manage speech and singing are parallel, yet dissimilar. This is why stroke patients often have difficulty speaking yet can sing clearly. A great example of this method are individuals that suffer from Tourette's - singing has been used as a way of letting individuals effectively communicate without interruption. A trained music therapist can help veterans and others with speech issues by developing a treatment plan based around singing.


Music Based Treatments Assist with Cognitive Rehabilitation


For veterans with brain injuries and illnesses, cognitive problems may be the largest barrier to returning to “normal” life. Difficulties usually involve memory, attention, social behavior, safety judgment, planning, and carrying out future actions. These all affect a person’s ability to care for themselves, keep appointments, complete tasks, or interact with people appropriately. This puts a person's ability to succeed at work, school, and home at stake. Unfortunately, cognitive rehabilitation can be a long, difficult road for veterans of military service, but without treatment for cognitive problems, the long-term effects can be devastating. Thankfully, music therapy has shown very promising results in healing people with cognitive issues or brain injuries. One effective type of music therapy treatment for cognitive rehabilitation is songwriting.


We already know that songwriting provides musicians with great emotional, health, and social benefits while allowing them to better understand themselves and others. So, starting small, patients can compose simple songs that require multiple cognitive faculties. Songwriting trains the patients to use rhythm, melody, and words, all at once. To write a song, the patient must set a goal, choose a topic, make a plan, and take the steps needed to finish it, all of which assist with cognitive rehabilitation. In some cases, music therapists can also tailor this type of treatment to address higher functioning abilities, such as decision making and coping mechanisms.


Listening to music can also aid in this process. Listening to music in general is very beneficial for individuals, but you can actually use specific types of music to elicit desired results. Often, patients with cognitive problems have difficulty focusing for extended periods of time. Listening to certain songs encourages them to stay focused and engaged. If the patient’s attention wanders, the music therapist can gently remind them to remain on task. These are just some of the reasons how musical treatments can help veterans improve their quality of life through fun and engaging ways, while helping with memory and teaching new tasks with cognitive rehabilitation.


Music Therapy for Veterans Heals Emotional and Social Problems


Music helps us connect. Think about when you meet someone new - one of the first things that is usually discussed about one another is what kind of music they enjoy. When they end up enjoying the same music, this creates a stronger initial bond and it makes it easier for you to open up and engage with them. Even if the music they enjoy is different than what you enjoy, it can still help you understand more about their personality. So whether it’s expressing yourself by writing or playing a song, or simply sharing your love of a particular band, music creates strong social bonds. For veterans, this can be a powerful form of therapy.


Many veterans experience emotional problems such as anger, anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation. By working with a music therapist, they can process these emotions. One simple, yet powerful exercise invites patients to listen to a song and then talk about how it makes them feel. Certain types of music have also been shown to trigger specific emotional responses in the listener. A great example is that playing music from a patient's youth usually elicits powerful responses of emotion ranging from nostalgia, happiness, and sadness, but sharing and reflecting upon these can really help emotionally and socially.


In some veterans administration hospitals and medical centers, music therapy programs include support groups for veterans with PTSD to share music that reflects their feelings. For example, group members can be invited to bring two songs: one that’s reminiscent of combat experience and a second that describes coping with PTSD. After listening to each song, the client is invited to share the song’s meaning and why it reminds him/her of combat or of coping with PTSD. Next, the music therapist facilitates a group discussion, inviting others to comment, share their experiences, or simply lend support. Thus, providing a space for self-expression, social support, and emotional processing.


Music Therapy Treatment Rebuilds Physical Muscles and Coordination


Last but definitely not least, many types of music can help veterans who need to rebuild muscle and coordination. Learning an instrument can also help patients with certain types of hand injuries.


Rhythm organizes our motor system, allowing our muscles to work together more smoothly and efficiently when walking or completing physical exercises. This is a familiar phenomenon—every time you dance to music or find yourself walking to the beat of a song, you’re experiencing the natural ability of our motor system to synchronize with a rhythmic pulse. Thus, rhythmic movement such as dancing or tapping along to a beat improves motor skills, balance, and stamina.


In the clinical space, a music therapist may put focus on this auditory-motor connection when implementing Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS), a music-based intervention designed to improve walking. For example, when a client with TBI begins walking, the music therapist will provide a strong, steady rhythmic pulse on an autoharp, paced to match the client’s walking speed. This steady beat serves to entrain the client’s motor system, and the client will begin walking more smoothly and more quickly. Treatments such as this go to show that although we can use exercises to try to rebuild motor functions or muscles, when the same exercises are performed with music, results can become even more beneficial.



Music Therapy and What We Have Learned


Music therapy for veterans provides lasting healing that makes a powerful impact on service members and their families. It’s one of the many ways music enriches our lives. The therapeutic needs of veterans and their families are as diverse as the individual personalities of each. However, given the wide-ranging influence music has on us, board-certified music therapists can help meet many of these needs and improve the functioning and quality of life of our veterans. Let’s also take a quick look at this great image that summarizes some of the things we discussed today!



We hope by spending a little bit of time reading about this you’ve learned how important music can be to everyone and the healing power it contains. If you have a veteran in your family, try listening to or playing some music for them. If you can connect with them and talk about the music they like and you like, chances are they would greatly appreciate it!


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