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With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless people all over the world found themselves suddenly deprived of everything they’d once called normal, forced to quarantine away from work, friends and family with little indication as to when their isolation would end. With the exponential increase of problems such as depression, anxiety and insomnia came a huge influx of people seeking sanctuary from the worsening chaos — in many cases, this took the form of therapy. 

When people think about therapy, many immediately envision sitting across from a smartly-dressed figure armed with a plethora of degrees and a veritable arsenal of probing questions, the image of classic “talk therapy.” However, there are many other forms of therapy which, though less renowned, have been found to be just as effective. Music therapy, which has slowly but surely gained popularity over time, is one such practice.

“Music therapy is a profession where we help people using music to achieve their health or wellness-related goals,” Andrea Hunt, a music therapist and music therapy professor at Rowan University, said.

In Hunt’s experience, sessions can involve a wide range of musical activities: listening to music, yes, but also singing, composing songs, improvising music and more. The experience changes depending on the participants and what they need.

Music has been known to be able to reach and affect the brain in unique ways still not fully understood by scientists. Some people cry hysterically to sad Spotify playlists, some unwind with classical piano tracks at the end of a long day and some just smile a little bit wider when a favorite song comes on the radio. Music is emotionally entrenched in the lives of millions, if not billions of people – and that’s where music therapy comes in.

“We used music depending on how ill people were in those settings to kind of help people feel grounded in reality,” Hunt said, recalling her time working in adult mental health rehabilitation and addiction recovery.

For patients struggling with psychosis and other similar mental health issues, sessions often included live music-making and were conducted in groups – for example, drumming together. 

Singing participants’ favorite songs in a group allowed them to ground themselves in the familiar lyrics, which would help with both the stronger symptoms and elevating everyone’s mood. For substance abusers, music helped them cope with and express their feelings while no longer having access to drugs during treatment.

“Sharing the same beat is really reality-orienting because we’re all hearing the same thing [and] we’re all playing together,” Hunt said. 

In private practice, Hunt describes sessions as listening to music while in a meditative state. Participants imagine a scene in which they address a problem in their lives in response to evocative, usually classical, music, while she helps them stay focused and experience the imagery as fully as possible. 

The problem addressed can be anything, from confronting someone who has been bothering them to what taking a specific risk might look like in their life. This is the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, which can result in a “really intense, really cathartic experience,” according to Hunt.

“Music therapy is especially good for people who have a hard time verbalizing what they’re going through,” Hunt said. “[It’s] really good at integrating what you’re feeling with what maybe you haven’t figured out how to put into words yet.” 

This is part of the reason why music therapy is known to often work well with people who have autism and other learning differences, very young children, and nonverbal individuals. 

“It can be therapeutic to listen to music, or make your own music […] but it’s not therapy,” Hunt said.

The key difference between listening to music independently and professional music therapy? A professional music therapist: someone specially trained to build a relationship with a participant, guide them through the necessary music experiences and work with them through whatever problems arise on the way.