What are Music and Art Therapies?

Music and art therapy both fall under the umbrella term ‘Expressive Arts Therapies’ – which includes music, art, drama, creative writing/poetry, and dance and movement.

Humans have used these arts to express themselves and heal for many thousands of years. Still, it is only since the 1940s that expressive arts have been formally recognised as therapeutic tools, playing an important role in the assessment and treatment of many mental health conditions.

Over the years, research has continued to show that through the process of creative expression – used alongside psychotherapy and medication – psychological disorders can be assessed and treated, improving mental health and emotional wellness.

When people are experiencing intense, complex or confusing emotions, the use of creative therapies can help them to manage and communicate their feelings in ways that language cannot always accomplish. They can help to address traumatic or uncomfortable situations without the use of words, which can, in turn, help to nurture personal growth and healing transformation.

It is not necessary to be good at music or art or to have any musical or artistic background in order to enjoy the benefits that these expressive therapies can provide.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy emerged as a therapeutic tool after World War I and World War II, when both amateur and professional musicians attended veterans’ hospitals to play for those who had suffered physical and emotional trauma.

The impact of the music on the patients’ physical and emotional responses saw the doctors and nurses requesting to hire musicians on a regular basis. It became apparent that the hospital musicians required training before starting, and thus ensued the beginning of music therapy education.

Music therapy is now an established, evidence-based intervention that uses music within a therapeutic process to assist people in identifying and dealing with social, cognitive, emotional or physical issues.

It incorporates techniques, such as making music, writing songs, listening to music or reflecting on music, to improve health and wellbeing.

Music-based therapy is based on two central methods:

  • the ‘receptive’ listening-based method, of which there are two types:
    • receptive ‘relaxation’ music therapy, often used in the treatment of anxiety, depression and cognitive disorder
    • receptive ‘analytical’ music therapy, used as the medium for ‘analytic’ psychotherapy
  • the ‘active’ method, based on creating music and playing musical instruments.

Everyone can connect and respond to music, and music therapy uses this connection to facilitate positive changes in emotional wellbeing and to enhance communication between an individual and their therapist. Music therapy can help:

  • improve mood
  • strengthen coping skills
  • encourage emotional expression
  • relieve stress and symptoms of anxiety
  • facilitate and develop social and communication skills
  • improve self-confidence and independence
  • enhance self-awareness and awareness of others
  • improve concentration and attention skills
  • recall and process traumatic experiences.

Ongoing research in music therapy indicates that it can be beneficial, when used alongside other treatments, to help with conditions as widespread as behavioural disorders, PTSD, schizophrenia, brain injury and neurological disorders, and substance use disorders.

Music therapy can be highly personalised, making it suitable for people of all ages and abilities.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy isn’t simply about creating art. Unlike art classes, where the focus is on learning specific techniques and creating particular pieces of finished work, art therapy focuses on the inner experience, expressing the inner world and focusing on feelings, thoughts, perceptions and whatever comes up during the creative process.

It uses a variety of methods, such as drawing, painting, sculpture and collage as a means of self-expression. The process of working with materials such as paint, oil pastels, clay and fabrics – and creating a final product – has been shown to have healing properties that help people:

  • explore and share their emotions
  • strengthen their sense of self
  • manage stress
  • work through their problems
  • learn better-coping skills
  • uncover different aspects of their personalities
  • boost self-esteem.

Art therapy offers a safe form of emotional expression and communication that is unrestricted by language and / or communication difficulties. The art provides a bridge between the inner world and the outside world, free of the confines of meeting certain levels of cognitive functioning.

The main aim of art therapy is to enable positive growth, through engagement with the art materials and the art therapist, in a safe and creative space.

The therapeutic value of art therapy has been recognised in many recent studies and is shown to be effective with people of all ages – from preschoolers to the elderly.

What are Music and Art Therapies used to treat?

Both music and art can act as a bridge between an individual and their therapist, and assist in creating a dialogue between them, either verbally or through the emerging music or artworks. Both therapies are found in a variety of settings from hospitals, mental health centres, nursing homes, schools, disaster relief centres and drug and rehab programmes.

Both methods are often used alongside other psychotherapy techniques, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Group Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), for maximum benefit.

Research shows that positive results can be achieved when music and / or art therapy are used as a complementary therapy to treat a number of conditions, including:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • problems with cognitive function
  • eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia
  • emotional difficulties
  • psychological symptoms associated with medical issues, such as cancer or disability
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • psychological issues
  • relationship/family issues
  • stress
  • substance use / dependency
  • trauma.

Music and art therapies, along with other creative interventions, can be powerful tools in helping to assess, treat and improve a variety of mental, physical and emotional health conditions – and can also help to address and relieve many of the associated symptoms.

What are the benefits of using Music and Art Therapies?

There are many proven psychological benefits gained through the application of music and art in a therapeutic setting. They have been shown to be effective when used with people of all ages and abilities, to treat a wide range of mental health disorders and psychological distress.

The benefits of using music and art therapies can include:

  • reduce anxiety, depression and physical effects of stress
  • bypass a problem when reflective and communication skills are not sufficiently developed to verbally communicate thoughts or feelings (creating the music or artwork is the primary focus, with increased understanding, reflection and verbal expression emerging later)
  • help to reduce symptoms of psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia
  • contribute to a sense of clarity, leading to greater self-awareness and a more positive self-image (through the reflections and insights gained)
  • provide an opportunity to disengage from potentially intense, verbal confrontation – that some talking therapy types require – instead, engaging in mindful, mood-regulating activities that focus on creativity
  • provide a safe outlet for exploring and expressing feelings that are difficult to articulate verbally
  • enable the discovery and expression of underlying thoughts and feelings – especially helpful for those too traumatised to speak about painful or complicated issues
  • provide a natural opportunity in which to learn and practise new patterns of relating, and develop social and interpersonal skills – particularly when used in group or family therapy settings
  • help circumvent feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear or resistance – that stem from fear-based thought patterns – by allowing free expression through non-verbal techniques
  • have a positive impact on self-regulating emotions and managing behaviours, as pain, rage, shame and other difficult feelings can be directed into making music or art (the feelings can be expressed through the music or art, instead of ‘acting out’ behaviours)
  • generate creative energy as a healing force for mind, body and soul.


In addition to these benefits, music and art therapies also allow therapists to gain a greater understanding of a person’s functioning, resources, challenges and adaptability – to inform the treatments better they will benefit from moving forwards.

All of these factors make music and art therapies extremely valuable tools in helping people to achieve positive growth, and in supporting their full recovery.

How effective are Music & Art Therapies?

On their own, music and art therapies have not been shown to constitute adequate treatment for medical conditions, including mental health disorders. However, they are clinical and evidence-based interventions that, when combined with medication and psychotherapy, have proven highly valuable and effective components of any treatment plan.

They are particularly effective clinical interventions for people who have difficulty communicating verbally – and can open a window to expression and emotional awareness, allowing individuals to more easily connect with themselves and others.

There is a wide array of research-based evidence to support the efficacy of music therapy. Much of this research is published in the Journal of Music Therapy – available through the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) publishes the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association – which presents articles with diverse perspectives on art therapy, as well as topics related to professional practice and research.

If you’d like to explore music or art therapy further, please contact us for more information.

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