History of Music Therapy: From Antiquity to Today

Music therapy is a relatively new profession. Certain countries in the world have recognized it as a discipline in the course of at least the last 70 years. Nevertheless, the idea of using music therapeutically might be as old as humanity itself. In this blog post, you can read a brief summary of the history of music therapy, from antiquity to today.

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 that people have used music both in their daily lives and in healing rituals for a long time. 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

Notions of music therapy go back for thousands of years. “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. For example, the biblical text mentions the use of music in a seemingly therapeutic way:

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 Ethos Theory

Greek philosophers Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato were some of the earliest philosophers to approach the healing and transformative power of music. Pythagoras came to believe that music was not only linked to mathematics but also that it was an expression of something deeper. He explored how various combinations of melodies played on the lyre, or sung, could influence a range of moods, for example.

After Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle developed a system of thought that identified four ends of music. These ends were:

  • Moving or imitating emotions
  • Giving pleasure
  • Disposing toward moral virtue
  • Fostering intellectual advancement.

Plato believed that music is “directed principally towards the soul” and that the first end of music is to educate “through habits, by imparting by the melody a certain harmony of spirit that is not science, and by rhythm, measure and grace.’”1

Plato believed that music can give us pleasure but that this end should be subordinate to another end, that of imbuing the soul with virtue and disposing the soul towards moral goodness. Similarly, Aristotle thought that music is a cathartic experience and spoke about it in terms of a movement that moves and changes our soul.


The early roots of music therapy history are wide-ranging! We recommend a book about the history of music therapy by music therapist Peregrine Horden. If you’re curious, you can also watch the following short video for more insight on the topic:


Sponsor this blog post for $50! This donation will support music and art therapy for seriously ill children and their families. 

Modern History of Music Therapy

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 music therapy history starts in the 18th century. In 1789, an unknown author published an article entitled “Music Psychically Considered” – what might be the first article on music therapy.

In 1891 the Guild of St. Cecilia used music with a 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.

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 highly helpful in helping troops and veterans retain their mental health.

Developments in the United States

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. 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.

After the 1940s

Up till 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 ’40s and ’50s 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 with developments in the UK, were the breeding ground for what we know today as music therapy.

The American Music Therapy Association summarizes 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.

Forming one organization

Fast forward to 1971 and that’s the year when the American Association of Music Therapy (AAMT) was established. 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). This reunification was a historical moment that required the proper conditions and individuals for it to take place.

Kenneth Aigen related his experiences with the AAMT and how by 1991 he became president-elect of the organization. As president, he formulated as goals for his term: (1) to achieve greater integration with related creative arts therapies organizations; and (2) to achieve reciprocity between AAMT and NAMT to allow for each organization’s therapist designations to be recognized by the other organization.2

Bryan Hunter also wrote on his experiences from the perspective of the NAMT. By 1982 he was established as a NAMT member and in 1993 he was elected president-elect of the Association. Both Ken Aigen and Bryan Hunter led the rapprochement of the two organizations that eventually led to their unification into one single association: the American Music Therapy Association.

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 Internationally

Music therapy continues to grow and develop internationally. For example, the International Association for Music and Medicine was established in 2010 to “encourage and support the use of music in medical contexts including research into the benefits of music, and its specialized applications in healthcare.” It seeks to explore not just music therapy, but also music and medicine and music-based interventions in healthcare contexts.

Additionally, the World Federation of Music Therapy was founded in 1985 in Genoa, Italy as the only worldwide professional organization representing music therapy. Since then they have brought together individuals and associations to develop and promote music therapy globally through the exchange of information, collaboration among professionals, and actions.

These two organizations are a reflection of the presence of diverse expressions of music therapy all throughout the world. While music therapy is more and more established in countries such as the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, and other countries, it is still in its very first steps in other countries.

Music therapy has 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!

Sam’s Fans raises awareness about music therapy through this blog and social media. Would you consider donating $5 so we can continue doing this work?


1 Schoen-Nazzaro, M. B. (1978). Plato and Aristotle on the Ends of Music. Laval théologique et philosophique, 34(3), 261. doi:10.7202/705684ar.

2 Aigen, K., & Hunter, B. (2018). The Creation of the American Music Therapy Association: Two Personal Perspectives. Music Therapy Perspectives, 36(2), 183-194. doi:10.1093/mtp/miy016

L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

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


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  5. Kiki on August 27, 2021 at 6:15 am

    Awesome article for my research! Thank you so much! Well written and super helpful

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