Feature image by Shannon Smith IG: @shannons_myth 


Any music fan could testify to the healing properties music can have. Who amongst us haven’t gotten through a bad day by blasting the right tunes at the right volume, or breezed through a break-up thanks to that one scathing anthem you throw on repeat at the gym? Music has the ability to reach us on a deeper level than other media- it’s rawer, more personal. We can draw parallels between the musician’s pain, their joy, their anger, and our own.

For years the psychology community has explored the therapeutic benefits of music and used them to treat a range of mental illnesses through varying methods. Often with psychological afflictions, the least invasive techniques possible are applied to prevent further harm. Music therapy, of course, is about as low impact as you can get in terms of intrusiveness – but its healing properties seem to know no bounds.

The Australian Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines the practice of music therapy as

a research-based practice and profession in which music is used to actively support people as they strive to improve their health, functioning and wellbeing.”

Established in 1975 by music therapy pioneers Dr Ruth Bright and Professor Denise Grocke, AMTA has since grown into a 500 member strong organisation that advocates for the accessibility of music therapy and oversees the accreditation processes involved with becoming an RMT (Registered Music Therapist). In Australia, RMTs treat conditions such as anxiety and depression, Alzheimer’s and dementia, schizophrenia, insomnia, autism and more.  

The therapy draws on the immediate emotional and motor function responses elicited during an immersive music experience, and combines sensory stimulation and movement to further these responses. The two main types of therapy are Active and Passive. The Active technique would involve higher levels of interaction between the patient and the therapist, while the Passive technique would see the patient in a state of rest while the therapist provides an audio source.

In cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s, the results couldn’t be more clear-cut. Employing both of the aforementioned techniques dependent on the condition of the patient, RMTs have found the response in dementia patients to be overwhelming. Otherwise unresponsive and apathetic, these patients are given new life when played songs from their youth. The stimulation profoundly affects their ability to socialise and communicate, arousing memories and feelings that may have lay dormant for months, even years. Even when beyond the reach of the sight and sound of loved ones, the sound of a familiar song can encourage a reaction in the patient’s brain that brings them back to Earth and focuses them. In some cases, these patients are able to regain their ability to speak or communicate non-verbally.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety are treated with both Active and Passive techniques, depending on the patient. A session drawing on the Active technique might include both the patient and therapist using instruments to improvise and create music. This releases endorphins and encourages relaxation and comfort. These are techniques that can be adapted, and employed outside of a professional therapy setting. And why not? We know it works, both clinically and because sometimes it feels good to cry and listen to ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ by Keane at max volume.

The healing power of music therapy can’t really be measured, as it elicits completely different responses in varying people and can depend on how they receive the treatment. But we know that it works, not just on account of the data provided from years of research and organisations such as the AMTA, but from our own personal experiences. When it comes to mental health, education and awareness is the name of the game. In Australia, one in six young people aged 16 to 24 years is currently experiencing an anxiety condition, and one in 16 young Australians is currently experiencing depression.

In fact, 50% of all mental health issues will emerge by the age of 14. Over 75% of mental health problems occur before the age of 25! Young people are one of the demographics most at risk of suffering from a mental illness, and yet are less likely than any other age group to seek professional help. The stigma surrounding these issues makes it extremely difficult for young Aussies to seek help, or even to know how.

Outside the realm of clear and identifiable mental illnesses of course lie the perils that come with being a young person in 2017. Whether or not you have an anxiety disorder, we’ve all felt the dull ache of much dreaded FOMO, worried over a sudden dip in followers or lack of likes. Social media and the culture of judgement and publicly measurable popularity have left an innumerable amount of young Australians feeling isolated, lonesome and anxious.

But as I said, education is the name of the game. Seeking professional help is always the right move, but unconventional treatments such as music therapy may be an easy, non-confronting way to manage these symptoms on a day-to-day basis. You can use similar tactics to those employed by RMTs at home, or on the move! Here are some steps to take to transform your every day listening experience into a therapeutical one:

Consciousness is key.

Gauge your mood and listen accordingly. You could choose music that enhances your emotional state, or music that changes your emotional state, based on the way you’re feeling. Do you ever find yourself listening to sad music when you’re already sad and spiralling down into existential dread? That might just be me, but don’t do that! Ignore the instinct that tells you to wallow in your bad mood and flip the switch. Happy songs are infectious, your sad self won’t be able to deny it for long. And if you’re already happy? Really just feeling yourself? Ride that feeling. Stay conscious of what you listen to, and really tune in to the vibe of the songs and let it guide your mood. 

Switch it up.

If you know a certain song, album or artist is associated in your memory with an unpleasant memory or experience, delete it from your library quicksticks and replace it with something new! In fact, creating a playlist of entirely new music is a great way to excite and stimulate your mind, as well as engaging you, and distracting you from the woes at hand.

Go to a show.

Live music brings people together in a way like no other. There are few places that provide a sense of community and oneness more than a gig or music festival – head out and ride that wave! Concerts are a great place to meet like-minded people and to have fun in a place free of stress and judgement.

Music therapy in a professional capacity has the power to change lives, to not only improve the quality of life for patients, but to heal and stop the progression of symptoms. Furthermore, retooling our own listening habits could be the key to a litany of health benefits, and in turn, a happier life.