Health & Wellness

Tune Into Music and Tune Out MS

By Cathy Rivera, MS, MM, MT-BC
Most people can remember a time when hearing music changed their mood or made them forget their pains and troubles. However, present-day music therapy can do much more than provide an emotional uplift. The directed use of music for therapy can produce changes in mind and body that last beyond the therapy session. In addition, music therapy can introduce methods of practicing functional skills in a way that reduces the boredom or frustration that can accompany long-term rehabilitation or adaptation training.
Using music to promote health and healing
Studies conducted at research centers worldwide, aided by recent advances in imaging and scanning technologies, show that music directly stimulates the brain and it can influence many brain-based behaviors, including moving, thinking, and feeling.
Music used to be classified only as a “right-brained” activity – basically an emotional response. We now know that just listening to music stimulates areas in every region of your brain. The simple tap of your foot is evidence of that.
Neurologic music therapy (NMT) is an approach based on this brain research and uses standardized, therapeutic techniques. A neurologic music therapist knows how to select specific aspects of music to transform functional therapeutic exercises into music experiences.
Cognitive challenges resulting from brain injury, developmental delay, or progressive diseases like multiple sclerosis, can also be addressed with therapeutic music exercises. To improve cognitive function, the music therapist will use the structure and organization of music to support exercises for memory and attention.
The emotional response to music is another important element. Studies suggest that therapeutic music exercises decrease stress hormones and promote neurotransmitters active in the brain’s pleasure center. Directed music experiences can reduce the depression and anxiety that is part of a client’s diagnosis or triggered by living with acute or chronic illness.
Sometimes music therapy will help generate an emotional and creative self-expression in an individual who has not responded to verbal therapies.
No Music Experience Required
You do not have to be a musician yourself, or even have experience playing music, to benefit from music therapy. A board-certified music therapist is a trained musician with knowledge of a wide spectrum of music styles and instruments. Whether you are alone or in a group, the music therapy session helps you practice functional tasks while listening, playing, vocalizing, or moving to music.
The experience can be as passive as practicing progressive relaxation to music for pain or stress relief. It also can be as active as doing range of motion exercises with a drum and mallet or gait exercises (walking) to live or recorded music.
If what you need most is to be supported in expressing what may be difficult to talk about, you might be directed to write song lyrics or create improvisational music. Like all therapy, music therapy requires effort and commitment by the participant, but with the musical element included, it is also likely to be enjoyable and satisfying.
Finding a qualified music therapist
To become a board-certified music therapist, an individual is required to complete a four-year and/or graduate-level academic program, complete a six-month supervised internship, and then pass an exam to become certified by the national Certification Board for Music Therapists.
Many music therapists work in collaboration with other therapy professionals as part of a multi-disciplinary team. The techniques they use can be coded for reimbursement by some medical insurance plans.
You can find board-certified music therapists in schools, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and through in-home service agencies. The American Music Therapy Association ( maintains a roster of board-certified music therapists all over the country. A list of neurologic music therapists can be found at the website for the Center for Biomedical Research in Music at
Cathy Rivera received bachelor and master’s degrees in science at the University of California, Davis. She completed a master’s degree in music therapy at Colorado State University. Since 2001 she has worked as a research assistant or as a staff therapist at rehabilitation and music therapy clinics. She works with clients through a private practice in Monterey County, Calif. She is a Fellow of Unkefer Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy. Learn more by visiting her website at or by calling 831-915-7260.
(Last reviewed 10/2009)