Music and Music Therapy for Healing and Wellness

Today we have a guest post from Hailey Ward, a music therapist who is originally from Vermont and currently resides in Portland, Maine. There are so many ways that music can help children and youth heal. We hope that some of the ideas Hailey shares will be beneficial for your family.

Music therapy is the process of using music to help individuals function better in daily life outside of the therapy setting. Music may be used to increase motor function, decrease anxiety, promote emotional expression, and anything in-between.  Building skills around daily life and mental health practices using music has proven to be very effective. Music therapy can be used with people of all ages and abilities, from babies in the NICU, autistic youth, adolescents who have eating disorders, adults with depression, individuals with trauma, Parkinson’s and dementia, end of life hospice care, and more.

Music Therapy is becoming more popular in hospital settings to provide procedural support and reduce pain. Because of the way music interacts with the different parts of our brains, music has been proven to reduce stress levels and release endorphins, both of which reduce the perception of physical pain. Additionally, next to smell, music is what is most connected to our memories. Music may help us to feel a sense of familiarity when we are in unfamiliar physical or emotional spaces.

In music therapy, there is a term coined by Ira Altshuler called the Iso Principle. The best way this can be described is using music to meet someone where they are at (mentally, physically, or emotionally), by playing or listening to a song that matches their current mood or feeling, and altering one’s mood by slowly progressing through songs that gradually reach the desired state. For example if you are feeling anxious or stressed, your heart rate may be faster than normal, so start by listening to a song that is faster, and captures the physical feeling of stress, followed by songs that gradually slow down. This naturally encourages your brain and heart to match its surroundings. This process is usually done with the support of a music therapist. It involves selecting and listening to several songs, and the idea is that your mood changes slowly, because the original selection was able to match your emotional needs, which is ultimately validating. Additionally, rhythmic entrainment occurs in our bodies when we listen to music, and can alter mood, heart rate, and breathing patterns, supporting our nervous system. A playlist of music is often created in this music therapy process, for individuals to refer back to and use as a tool in their daily life for emotional regulation. If you already engage in playlist making, perhaps you are already exploring some of these ideas!

Music can provide an outlet for creative, emotional, and at times, physical expression. Because there are so many ways to engage with music (listening, playing, analyzing, improvising, singing, etc), music can support children and youth by giving them something to relate to, engage with, and learn from. There are also social, educational, and emotional benefits from exposure to music at all ages. Music therapy specifically may reduce behavioral and emotional challenges in children.

Listening to a variety of music is a great way to understand where a child’s musical interests may or may not fall. It’s essential to notice what a child may naturally be drawn to (musically or non-musically). If a child always asks to listen to one song, or the same artist, notice if they are singing along, tapping their feet, or being still while they listen. Music lessons can be a good option, and are most effective if the child has expressed interest in playing an instrument (as opposed to the caregivers expectation that the child learn the instrument). Non-verbal children who show interest in music or a particular instrument may be good candidates for adaptive music lessons, which music therapists are usually trained in. Engaging with instruments can be a way for these individuals to access emotional expression. Another note on lessons…. I always encourage individuals who want to learn guitar to start on the ukulele first. For kids, this is an easier instrument to make chord shapes, and the strings are nylon (as opposed to steel strings on a guitar), and a lot of the basic skills (strumming, plucking) are the same, so when they are ready to graduate to guitar, they have the basics down. Patience is key when a child is ready to learn or engage with a new instrument, whether you pursue lessons, music groups, or just explore new genres and cultures of music together as a family. 

During my clinical music therapy training, I had a placement in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), and I had the opportunity to play music for a newborn who had been born 7 weeks early. I played and sang for him for about 20 minutes, and it was incredible to see his heart rate actually decrease on the monitor as I slowed my tempo down. It was a very special moment to be a part of, especially knowing how stressful hospitals can be for newborns.

I have also worked with many groups of adolescents in varying levels of mental health treatment, and one of the best ways I have found to connect with youth is through songwriting. There are studies in the field of music therapy that have revealed that songwriting actually accesses a deeper level of conscience, and so individuals who engage in songwriting may be accessing a part of their experiences and emotions that they might otherwise not verbally discuss. There are many ways to adapt songwriting as a music therapy experience in order to make it accessible to individuals of all ages and capabilities.

Did you know there are 17 board-certified music therapists (MT-BC’s) in the state of Vermont? Music Therapy is becoming more common all over the world, but music therapy may not be covered by your insurance company. Many music therapists in private practice use private-pay, and some may have sliding scale options to make their services more accessible. My hope is that as awareness about the benefits of music and music therapy spreads, that the use of  music therapy as a therapeutic modality will continue to grow. Yours in music.

Music Therapy Resources:

Select ‘Vermont’ as the state and press submit, there is a list of 17 board-certified music therapists in the state!

Resources for Music Therapy with various populations:

Hailey Ward is a board-certified music therapist currently located in Portland, Maine. Her passion is connecting with other people through music. Hailey grew up in Vermont, and then spent almost 10 years in Minnesota, during which she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Songwriting, and Master’s Degree in Music Therapy. In March of 2023, Hailey completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training from Up Yoga in Minneapolis. Hailey is eager to explore the intersection between the intentional use of music therapy and yoga. She specializes in music therapy for adolescents and adults with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. However, all are welcome. You can find her at

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