How Music Therapy Works for Treating Chronic Pain

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Vanya Green, MA, LPCC, MT-BC
April 2, 2024 / 4 mins read

Have you noticed that our feelings or moods can influence our experience of pain? When we are injured, both the area of the brain corresponding to the part of the body that was hurt and the “emotion” centers in the brain are activated. Consistent physical pain can lower our pain threshold, creating a destructive feedback loop. Given the strong correlation between emotions and pain, it is essential to find interventions for chronic pain that connect to our thoughts and feelings.

Music therapy is an evidence-based practice for reducing pain perception and increasing positive emotions. Why might music therapy be effective in treating chronic pain? Scientific research points to significant activation of the “emotion” centers of the brain while listening to and engaging in music.

Think about one of your favorite songs. If you were only to read the words, would they create the same emotional response as listening to them set to music? This ability of music to connect to us – to cause goosebumps or tears, to inspire us to dance, or to soothe our frayed nerves – can make it particularly effective for use in therapy.

Music therapists are trained to use music as a tool for non-musical goals. In other words, while a child taking guitar lessons may be working on improving their note reading and strumming skills, a child will play an instrument in music therapy for a different reason. Maybe it’s to facilitate stronger interpersonal connections or to increase positive self-regard and self-expression. This is not to say that a child in music therapy will not gain musical skills, but skill acquisition is more a side effect, not the primary goal.

In my work with youth experiencing chronic pain, we engage in several different interventions, including songwriting. This can, but does not require verbal communication. We might take a preferred song and rewrite some of the lyrics or model our own beat-making after a beat the client likes. Since so many children and adolescents connect with music somehow, it can be a great jumping-off point for expressing preferences and emotions. For those who are interested in music production, we can record original or new versions of songs, which can be fulfilling and empowering.

Music therapists create a non-judgmental environment where expression and connection – not perfection – are the focus. Sessions are tailored to an individual’s interests. As a licensed psychotherapist (BBS LPC-411), I follow the child’s lead in integrating discussion with music-making.

For children and adolescents who are resistant to talk therapy or “venting” about their problems, music can be especially effective in helping foster connections. A song might encourage us to change our perspective, cultivate empathy, or improve our mood. An upbeat song can literally “move” us, even if we previously felt lethargic or uninspired. And even sad songs can make us feel good. They serve as containers for our feelings and help us connect with others. In addition, while some young people may be reluctant to try “mindfulness meditation,” they may be more open to using music for focus and relaxation.

Whether or not someone considers themselves “musical,” music therapists are trained to bring a client’s preferences and strengths into focus. For example, a client might improvise a melody on a xylophone (while accompanied by the therapist on the guitar or piano), or engage in call-and-response drumming or vocalizing.

Regarding the voice, while some youth want to sing, others are reluctant. There are ways to engage breathing and create a sound in non-intimidating ways. As we gradually build trust, some clients like to project more and more, surprised at the power of their own voice.

Turning something painful, “unacceptable,” or hidden into art is the center of what can transform creative arts therapies. This ability of music to build our sense of self, connect with others, and bring meaning to our experiences makes it a particularly effective modality for increasing positive emotions and, in turn, beginning to decrease chronic pain.