History of Music Therapy: From Antiquity to Today

Notions of music therapy go back thousands of years. We know about music in the pre-historic world thanks to the survival of Palaeolithic cave-paintings and flutes made of bone found in caves, dating back 35,000 years. What exactly did they use these instruments for? We might never know for sure, but we do know there are reports of music being used both in their daily lives and in healing rituals. Read along to learn about the history of music therapy, from antiquity to today.

flute, history of music therapy

History of Music Therapy in the Ancient World

“The use of music to influence the human body was first mentioned in writing in Egyptian medical papyri dating back to 1500 BCE” according to Rolando Benenzon. Greco-Roman, Arabian, Indian, and Chinese traditions of learned medicine all include various notions of music used in a therapeutic way. Stories and quotes from mythological and biblical sources also provide evidence of this. Check out for example, the mention of what seems like music therapy in the biblical text:

1 Samuel 16:14-16, 21-23: “‘It’s an evil spirit from God that’s frightening you,’ Saul’s officials told him. ‘Your Majesty, let us go and look for someone who is good at playing the harp. He can play for you whenever the evil spirit from God bothers you, and you’ll feel better.’ … David went to Saul and started working for him. Saul liked him so much that he put David in charge of carrying his weapons. Not long after this, Saul sent another message to Jesse:  ‘I really like David. Please let him stay with me.’ Whenever the evil spirit from God bothered Saul, David would play his harp. Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away.”

Greek philosophers Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato also approached the healing and transformative power of music. Pythagoras thought that music was not only linked to mathematics, but also that it was an expression of something deeper. He went a step further and explored how various combinations of melodies played on the lyre, or sung, could influence a range of moods (sounds like music therapy, anyone?). Then after him, Plato and Aristotle developed a system of thought that found four ends to music. These ends were moving or imitating emotions, giving pleasure, disposing toward moral virtue, and fostering intellectual advancement. The early roots and history of music therapy are wide-ranging. We recommend a book about the history of music therapy by music therapist Peregrine Horden. If you’re curious, you can watch the following short video for more insight on the topic:


Modern History of Music Therapy

Unfortunately, even though we have long known the power of music, music therapy as an established profession has only existed for a short amount of time. The modern history of music therapy starts in the 18th century. In 1789, an article entitled “Music Psychically Considered” was what is thought to be the first article on music therapy. Then in 1891 the Guild of St. Cecilia used music with large number of patients in London hospitals. Here you can read Frederick Harford reporting how the choir from the Guild (comprising of three singers, two violins, and a harp) went to different hospitals to play for the patients. Harford was able to recruit musicians and report his findings through several journals (not without any critiques). Unfortunately, due to the increased costs of his endeavors and his deteriorating health, the Guild had to stop its services.

Over in the United States, thanks to the invention of the phonograph in 1877, doctors were able to use music as sedative or distraction in the operating room. Eventually physicians also used it in dentistry, obstetrics, gynecology, and children’s operations. Eva Augusta Vescelius created the National Society of Musical Therapeutics in the US in 1903. In 1919 British musician Margaret Anderson taught a course in Musicotherapy at Columbia University. Isa Maud Ilsen then formed the National Association for Music in Hospitals in 1926 and in 1950, the National Association of Music Therapy (NAMT) was born.

During the Second World War, the work of ENSA (Entertainments National Services Association) in taking music to British servicemen, whether active or wounded, was vital to the morale of the troops. It was during both World War I and World War II that music therapy became recognized as a formal profession. The work of musicians and early music therapists was if not essential, highly helpful, in helping troops and veterans retain their mental health.

Developments in the United States

But until the 1940s and 1950s there appeared to be a general lack of understanding of music’s value, apart from its general aesthetic and cultural aspects, from both physicians and musicians. The 40’s and 50’s saw the creation of the first music therapy programs in the US. The National Association of Music Therapy (NAMT) and the American Association of Music Therapy, along developments in the UK, were the breeding ground for what we know today as music therapy.

The American Music Therapy Association summarizes really nicely how from the 1940’s music therapy was able to develop:

“In the 1940s, three persons began to emerge as innovators and key players in the development of music therapy as an organized clinical profession. Psychiatrist and music therapist Ira Altshuler, MD promoted music therapy in Michigan for three decades. Willem van de Wall pioneered the use of music therapy in state-funded facilities. He wrote the first “how to” music therapy text, Music in Institutions (1936). E. Thayer Gaston, known as the “father of music therapy,” was instrumental in moving the profession forward in terms of an organizational and educational standpoint.”

Fast forward to 1971 and that’s when the American Association of Music Therapy (AAMT) was established. It was initially called the Urban Federation of Music Therapists. It had differences in philosophy, education, and approach to the NAMT and by 1997 it had grown to 700 members. The Certification Board for Music Therapists was created in 1983 to ensure the credibility of the music therapy profession. To date, there are over 7,000 certificants who hold the credential Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC).

In 1998 the NAMT and the AAMT merged to become the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). The AMTA publishes two research journals and advocates for the music therapy profession. It is also the largest music therapy association in the world.

Check out this timeline of music therapy:

history of music therapy

Music therapy has definitely come a long way since the early 20th century. Nevertheless, we still need to advocate to gain a full appreciation of its power. At Sam’s Fans, we hope to be able to help along by sharing this history of music therapy. And you can help too! Please consider making a donation if you think music therapy should be available to everybody. Thank you!

L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

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

1 Comment

  1. […] is no music therapist involved in the prescription and implementation of the music intervention. The standard definition of music therapy states that music therapy is the use of music “by a crede… That immediately rules out these videos as music therapy. Why is a music therapist even necessary […]

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