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Music Therapy and Teens Facing a Serious Illness

In this blog post, I explore the ways in which teens use music. I also explore how music therapy is of great support for them when faced with a serious illness.

We know from sociological studies and from pure common sense and experience that music is an important part of life for most, if not all, teens.  Roughly between the ages of 13 and 19, there is rapid and intense physical, psychological, and social development, and it is during these years that music becomes one of the most popular leisurely activities for many. This can take many forms, from purely listening to music to being in bands. While teens can develop a taste for any kind of music, most teens tend to gravitate towards the popular music of the day. Family, school/peers, media, age, gender, and culture/socioeconomic status can also influence musical taste.

Music functions in four major ways for young people:

Identity: Construction and strengthening of identity and conception of self.

Teenagers struggle with questions of identity and the self. Music can help in strengthening the construction of self and identity by providing experiences of connection and meaning. How often do teenagers identify themselves with the genre of music they like or their favorite artist? While this can lead to problems, it is important to recognize that it happens.

Agency: Control, competency, and self-esteem.

Music can help teens feel like they are in control by allowing them to make choices. In today’s world this is much more true as teens can simply choose what to listen to, even when their parents or authority figures might try to impose limits. In contrast to other parts of their lives, music can be one of the only things they have almost complete control over.

Interpersonal relationships: Belonging and privacy.

For youth, the perceived musical orientation of others is important in initiating relationships. They also tend to associate certain personality traits to people depending on their musical taste. This can lead to a feeling of belonging to a group. And belonging to a group is also important for teens!

Emotional field: Enjoyment and emotion regulation.

Lastly, youth use music for our enjoyment or to regulate their emotions. Without judging whether most teens do this properly, we can safely say that music is an emotional outlet for a lot of them. It can help them express feelings that might be unfamiliar, new, or complex.

What happens when a teen is faced with a serious illness?

When teens are in the hospital, while the main goal is to get them out of the hospital healthy as soon as possible, it is also important to consider how the whole experience might affect them emotionally and mentally. Being faced with a serious illness at a young age can be a scary thing that can have repercussions on their mental health. Music therapy can be a way to address some of the issues that lie beyond curing the “physical” aspect of a disease. A music therapist can not only help alleviate the stress of being in a hospital or facing a serious illness, but he or she can also help in all the ways that teens make sense of the world.


You can imagine that the relationship of a teen with music changes when faced with a serious illness. There are several factors that could influence how teens use music when faced with serious illnesses:


Length and frequency of hospital stays:

Is the teen staying in the hospital for 3 days or 3 months? Is he or she in the hospital just once or frequently? Staying for a long period of time in the hospital can make music more important in having some sense of normalcy.

Severity of illness:

How serious is the illness? A teen who is too weak to play an instrument might prefer to listen to music instead. What specifically does the illness affect? What is the level of functioning of the teen?

Family and peers:

In their teens, kids tend to be more influenced in their musical choices by their peers rather than their parents or other authority figures. This means that perhaps what the parents of a teen suggest for music listening or experiences might not be what the patient actually likes. Asking their peers if they come to visit could be helpful. It might also be important to include their peers in any musical experiences.

Use of music before being faced with illness:

Do they play the guitar at home? How do they listen to music usually? By themselves or with friends? Do they like to dance? All important questions that should be considered!


Enter Music Therapy

Regarding the four ways music functions for young people, we can say the following about music therapy for them when faced with an illness:


It might be important to recognize how being diagnosed with a serious illness might affect the identity of a teenager. It is important that they don’t identify themselves with the disease and music can be an anchor to a healthy identity.


A music therapist can provide a patient with choices of music and experiences to help give a sense of control or competency to the teen in a situation in which they don’t get to make many choices.

Interpersonal Relationships:

With enough musical knowledge from the part of the therapist, he or she will be able to connect with the patient on a musical level and consequently on an emotional level. This connection will make the therapeutic work much easier and better. It is also interesting that there seem to be songs that are similarly popular in all age groups (“golden greats”). These songs can be safe to play with teens when it’s uncertain what they like or when there is a lack of knowledge of what the patient likes. Similarly, therapists should not assume stereotypical tastes for patients.

Emotional Field:

This is a really important field for music therapists. Music can help the patient express their feelings that might be associated with facing their illness. It might be too complicated for them to express it with words but with the help of a qualified music therapist this might be possible.


In conclusion, facing a serious illness is scary, especially for teens who are just starting to make sense of the world. Music therapy can address really important goals that go beyond curing the physical illness of the patient. Sam’s Fans supports music therapy programs that serve teens facing serious illnesses. If you wish to support our work, please consider making a donation here.


L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

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

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