12 Individual Populations that Music Therapists Can Help

Perhaps you already know that music therapy is great. You may also already know how music therapy with seriously ill children works. But, did you know that music therapy can also help people individual populations that range from the military to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the elderly, and more? 

Following is a short description of what the current work in some of these areas looks like! This is not an exhaustive list nor an exhaustive explanation. We hope it can serve as an introduction to the wonderful world of music therapy. 

The American Music Therapy Association has created and shared fact sheets focused on the following populations which guide the text of this post. This post is structured loosely following the topics of the fact sheets on that page plus additional input from Leslie Bunt’s book, “Music Therapy: An Art Beyond Words.” 

Without further ado, here are 12 individual populations that music therapists can help:

1. Music Therapy in Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health

According to Alvernia University, behavioral health describes the connection between behaviors and the health and well-being of the body, mind and spirit. This would include how behaviors like eating habits, drinking or exercising impact physical or mental health. Behavioral health is an umbrella term that includes mental health. 

In this setting, music therapists meet the needs of children and adolescents, providing a multi-modal means of expression, both verbal and non-verbal. It is inclusive of trauma-informed and wellness-based models of care, and it is a source of intrinsic motivation for children and adolescents to engage in therapy. 

Additionally, music therapy in this setting can:

  • Allow for self-reflection, particularly using the medium of music.
  • Support social and communication skills, fostered in the act of making music. 
  • Help patients identify their thoughts and feelings and how they influence their behaviors and identity.
  • Teach patients self-regulation and coping skills


2. Music Therapy & Military Populations

Music therapy in the United States had its origins in the work with military populations. Music therapists continue to provide services to service members across all phases of military service.

“In 1945, the U.S. War Department issued Technical Bulletin 187 detailing a program on the use of music for reconditioning among service members convalescing in Army hospitals. This program demonstrated how music could be incorporated in multiple therapeutic services including recreation, education, occupational therapy, and physical reconditioning (Rorke, 1986; U.S. War Department, 1945).”

Music therapists nowadays work in diverse settings that range from a program for active duty airmen to foster coping and stress management around deployment, to programs that center on the use of songwriting to address issues associated with symptoms of PTSD, to programs that address the needs of service members and veterans with polytrauma in rehabilitation.

Music therapists are actively involved in contributing to a strong base of evidence in support of various music therapy interventions, drawing from high quality research. 


3. Music Therapy & Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Autism Spectrum Disorder is “a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviors.”

There are years of evidence to support the efficacy of music therapy with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the body of research only continues to grow. A Cochrane Review from 2014 looked at ten studies about music therapy with children with ASD, and found that music therapy was superior to placebo therapy or standard care in the areas of social interaction, non-verbal and verbal communication skills, initiating behavior, and social-emotional reciprocity.

Music therapy interventions focus on enhancing social, communicative, motor/sensory, emotional, and academic/cognitive functioning, or music skills in individuals with ASD. Music therapy services are based on each client’s individual abilities, noting preferences, needs, the family’s values, beliefs, and priorities.


4. Music Therapy & Alzheimer’s Disease

Another common setting for the use of music therapy is in geriatric care. Treating

dementia is one of the most common uses of music therapy in this setting. 

Music therapy treatment is efficacious and valid with older persons who have functional deficits in physical, psychological, cognitive or social functioning. Research results and clinical experiences attest to the viability of music therapy even in those who are resistive to other treatment approaches.

Music therapy with clients with dementia, especially of the Alzheimer’s type, is often used to allow the client to develop a narrative that they would otherwise not be able to develop. While these patients lose faculties such as the ease of verbal communication, “musical functioning often remains intact, and can be the last faculty to deteriorate” (as cited in Bunt, 2014, p.150). 

The use of improvised music, for example, is effective in “producing and developing interaction and synchronicity where it may have failed as a result of disability or illness” (p.154).


5. Music Therapy for Persons in Correctional & Forensic Settings

In correctional and forensic settings, clients may include adolescents and adults who are incarcerated, individuals adjudicated for treatment in secure mental health facilities, persons living in half-way houses, group homes, and intensive sanctions programs, and individuals on probation and parole who live independently in the community.

Music therapy can help in this setting can address goals such as:

  • Learn coping and relaxation skills
  • Accept responsibility for thoughts and feelings
  • Decrease impulsivity
  • Foster well-being
  • Explore feelings and make positive changes
  • Foster respect for others
  • Improve social skills


6. Music Therapy in Response to Crisis & Trauma

Music has been used to address the impact of trauma for millennia. Music therapists use interventions to treat emotional disturbances, processing of the trauma, encouraging relaxation, aiding sleep, and many other goals.

Music therapy can:

  • help clients regain a sense of control of their lives,
  • explore emotions,
  • reduce the emotional stress and anxiety levels,
  • develop relaxation,
  • stimulate an increased awareness of self,
  • and validate one’s feelings. 

To accomplish these goals, music therapists have reported to use:

  • vocal holding techniques,
  • sleep inducing tapes,
  • relaxation through music,
  • improvisation with room for associations,
  • use of folk songs known by the clients,
  • and more.

Trauma is complex and even today the process of healing for many continues. Nevertheless, much has been done and continues to be done to alleviate and give closure to that trauma. The music therapy community, for example, reacted to the terrorist attacks with the New York City Music Therapy Relief Project. This project was created to provide music therapy services. The music therapy was directed to individuals and groups in and around New York City who were directly impacted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


7. Music Therapy & Medicine

Music therapy has been shown to be an efficacious and valid treatment option for medical patients with a variety of diagnoses. Music therapy in medical contexts is more and more common.

Quoting another good article on the topic, “in a meta-analysis of 400 studies, Levitin and his postgraduate research fellow, Mona Lisa Chanda, PhD, found that music improves the body’s immune system function and reduces stress. Listening to music was also found to be more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, April, 2013).”


8. Music Therapy & Mental Health

Music therapy is also used in child and adult mental health. Bunt (2014) mentioned two approaches to music therapy in mental health: Priestley’s Analytical Music Therapy and Randi Rolvsjord’s Resource-Oriented Music Therapy. 

These two approaches focus on individual work but can also be used in group contexts. Analytical Music Therapy is an approach grounded on psychoanalytical theory in which there is first a conversation, followed by a musical improvisation and finally a verbal discussion of the musical interaction. 

Resource-Oriented Music Therapy, on the other hand “is informed by the philosophy of empowerment, by a contextual model of psychotherapy and by positive psychology” (Bunt, 2014, p. 132). It is a flexible approach in which different activities could be chosen with the goal of creating positive experiences for the client, allowing him or her to recognize his or her own competence (Bunt, 2014, p. 133).

Additionally, there are other models that address mental health within a music therapy context.


9. Music Therapy & Music Education

Music therapy differs from music education in some important ways. Yet, music therapists can also work in tandem with music educators and can assist them in a number of ways. 

Music educators might lack adequate training regarding the educational needs of students with disabilities, for example. Music therapists can work with music educators in the following ways: 

  • Consultant: In designing and implementing appropriate music education experiences for all.
  • Direct Service: in the regular music education classroom, in the self-contained classroom, or outside the classroom.
  • Inservice education: Music educators frequently call upon music therapists to provide support in the development of techniques and strategies that will lead to successful inclusion.


10. Music Therapy & Pain Management

Music therapy has been shown to be an efficacious and valid treatment option for patients experiencing pain related to a variety of diagnoses.” Music therapists will work with patients in a variety of settings. They would also use the following interventions to help patients cope with their pain:

  • Assisted relaxation and music 
  • Distraction 
  • Re-contextualization of pain


11. Music Therapy & Special Education

According to the Department of Defense Education Activity, special education is “specially designed instruction, support, and services provided to students with an identified disability requiring an individually designed instructional program to meet their unique learning needs.” 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), music therapy is considered a related service. In this context, music therapists assist a child in their goals as a related service intervention and are documented in their Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

Music therapy can help address cognitive, behavioral, physical, emotional, and social goals. Some examples of how this may happen are:

  • stimulate attention
  • increase motivation to participate more fully in other aspects of the educational setting
  • apply the inherent order of music to set behavioral expectations, provide reassurance, and maintain structure
  • adapt strategies to encourage a child’s participation in the least restrictive environment

Music therapists can also support special education classroom teachers by providing guidance on how to best use music in their classroom curriculum. 


12. Music Therapy & Disabilities

Many music therapists work with populations with learning disabilities. The World Health Organization defines learning disability as 

“a condition of arrested or incomplete development of the mind, which is especially characterized by impairment of skills manifested during the developmental period” (as cited in Bunt, 2002, p. 97). 

Music therapists in this area work in the community visiting patients with learning disabilities, as well as in specialized institutions. Currently, music therapy with this population is used to help the client address difficulties relating to communication and emotional issues, as well as behavior challenges services. 

The primary medium of these sessions is music, and depending on the therapist, it is either improvised or not. In the UK, for example, it is common to have improvised music, co-created by the therapist and client (Bunt, 2002, p. 104).

Music therapy is also used in helping patients with physical disabilities. “The physically disabled are persons with physical impairments and defects that are of congenital origin or the result of disease or accident” (as cited in Gaston, 1968, p. 99). Physical disabilities can be classified as visual, auditory, speech, orthopedic, or neurologic. Music therapy is used with these populations for physical and psychological rehabilitation. Gaston (1968) pointed out that music therapy can be useful in developing coordination and increasing muscular strength and joint motion (p. 128). 

Music can also be used to improve breathing, for its social value, and for emotional release for those with physical disabilities. Gaston also reported that the use of some instruments can aid in exercising certain parts of the body and for physical ends such as “double note playing at intervals of fourths and fifths […] to develop an arch in the left hand; melodic progressions […] changed over a period of time from scale steps to chord skips for increased fingers abduction” and others (p. 130).


And more…

The areas discussed so far are those in which many music therapists are currently employed. Nevertheless, others which have not been included are: prenatal care, palliative care, neurology, addiction management, and more. 

Music therapy will continue to strengthen its presence with these 12 individual populations and beyond! You could expect a second part to this blog post soon.

For now, we hope that you learned more about these 12 individual populations that music therapists can help from this post. Let us know what you thought and if you have any experiences of working with a music therapist!



American Music Therapy Association. Music Therapy with Specific Populations: Fact Sheets, Resources & Bibliographies | Music Therapy with Specific Populations | American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). (n.d.). https://www.musictherapy.org/research/factsheets/. 


Bunt, L. (2014). Music therapy: an art beyond words. Routledge. 


L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

Samuel is Sam's Fans Operating Director and our primary blogger!

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