Music Therapy in Addiction Recovery


Music therapy holistic recovery program

Music therapy is often used in addiction recovery to encourage those suffering from substance abuse to come to terms with the issues that contributed to their addiction and to provide a constructive coping mechanism that will prevent future relapse. Music therapy alone won’t be enough to keep them on the path toward sobriety, but it can be a valuable part of a holistic recovery program that is tailored to meet an individual’s specific needs.

What Are the Benefits of Music Therapy?

Art therapy has been used in substance abuse treatment programs since the 1950s, although the practice continues to grow each year as researchers explore the therapeutic benefits of promoting creative expression in a vulnerable population. In The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs, the authors report music therapy offers many of the same benefits as art therapy, including:

  • Decreasing denial about the seriousness of one’s addiction
  • Reducing opposition to seeking substance abuse treatment
  • Increasing motivation to change the cycle of addictive behavior and destructive choices
  • Providing a constructive communication outlet for stress, anxiety and other troubling feelings
  • Lessening inner shame from past mistakes and harmful behaviors
  • Motivating those struggling with addiction to work toward recovery even when they encounter obstacles
  • Aiding in group communication when used as part of an organized therapy session

In addiction recovery, music therapy is most common in rehabilitation programs aimed at female patients and/or adolescents. Rehabilitation centers using a 12-step model for addiction recovery are also more likely to use music or art therapy as part of their treatment plan. However, anyone can benefit from music therapy, including people who expressed no past interest in music. You don’t need to be musically gifted to benefit from music therapy.

The American Music Therapy Association tracks the benefits of music therapy among different groups. Highlights from their research review include:

  • A 1988 study focusing on teens with substance abuse problems found lyric analysis helps adolescents develop a positive attitude toward themselves and recovery.
  • A 1996 study master’s thesis by K.L. Ward found female inmates with substance abuse issues improved their sense of concentration and focus after music therapy, staying on task longer than those who did not receive music therapy interventions.
  • A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Communities found adults in a residential therapeutic rehabilitation program said listening to relaxing music improved their mood and reduced sleep disturbances.
  • The Journal of Addictive Diseases reports patients with a dual diagnosis were more likely to successfully follow up their initial aftercare appointment if they attended more than six music therapy programs while in rehab.

Listening to joyful music increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients

Bottom Line Health says music can be a tool to promote physical health as well. Listening to joyful music dilates blood vessels in the body to increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients. Singing and playing instruments increases germ-fighting immunoglobulins.

Both of these benefits are of particular interest to those in treatment for drug or alcohol addiction because they often enter rehab struggling with malnourishment and compromised immune systems. Letting music help physically strengthen the body frees the person to focus on addressing the issues that led to their addiction.

Formal Music Therapy vs. Therapeutic Music Programs

Although the general public uses the term “music therapy” to describe any therapeutic activities involving music, it’s important to make sure you understand the correct use of the term before deciding how to proceed in your addiction recovery.

The term music therapy refers to an organized program overseen by a trained music therapist who has an academic background in medicine, psychology and music. A music therapist is required to have a bachelor’s degree or higher and complete 1,200 hours of clinical training to hold the MT-BC credential, which is issued through the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

special licensure for music therapists

Some states also require special licensure for board-certified music therapists. Therapy sessions planned by a trained music therapist use clinical and evidence-based music interventions to accomplish stated therapeutic goals. Music therapists often specialize in working with certain populations, such as senior citizens, developmentally disabled children or people recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

Therapeutic music programs focus on helping individuals use music to express their thoughts and feelings. They are not run by trained music therapists, although they often have a leader who does have a background in music and/or healthcare.

Therapeutic music programs offer many of the same benefits as formal music therapy but are delivered in a less structured environment. For example, a therapeutic music program might involve having local artists teach workshops or volunteers perform in a common area where interested parties can listen to the soothing music.

Some rehab centers offer sessions with certified music therapists as part of their addiction treatment plan. Others incorporate informal therapeutic music programs with other holistic treatment plans, such as team building exercises and outdoor activities designed to help those struggling with addiction break self-destructive behavior patterns. However, both types of centers are likely to encourage musical exploration as a form of self-care for anyone who feels it might be beneficial.

Informal Music Therapy for Addiction Treatment

For many struggling with addiction, substance abuse develops as a coping mechanism for dealing with unpleasant feelings. They pop a few pills after a stressful confrontation at work or a heated argument with their spouse. When they’re overcome by grief from a loved one’s death, they search for escape at the bottom of a bottle.

Ensure a lasting recovery

To ensure a lasting recovery, a person needs to find a constructive way to deal with life’s emotional challenges. Some people turn to exercise as a form of relieving stress, while others look to volunteering in the community or becoming actively involved with a house of worship. However, music is perhaps the most accessible coping tool for someone in recovery. A radio or MP3 player is all one needs to listen to music, and this activity can be done whenever or wherever it is helpful.

Listening to music can be soothing mechanism

Listening to music can be a wonderful soothing mechanism. Playing a song that makes you think of a happier time can boost your mood, thus making it easier to resist the temptation to relapse. Listening to music while dancing or meditating engages both the mind and body, creating even more benefits.

Keeping a journal in which you describe how certain songs make you feel can also be a beneficial activity. Even if your writing is not perfect, the process of expressing your thoughts on paper may offer new insights into issues to explore in greater detail with your recovery team. Keep a notebook by your bed to jot down your thoughts or use a note-taking app on your smartphone.

Questions you might want to explore in your journal include:

  • Have you heard this song before? If so, do you associate the song with any specific events or people?
  • How does this song make you feel about your own struggle with addiction?
  • What positive lessons can you learn from the song’s lyrics?
  • Do you disagree with any of the messages presented in the song? If so, why?
  • Does this song remind you of any other songs about addiction and recovery? If so, which ones?

Doodling or sketching when listening to music

If desired, you might want to try doodling or sketching when listening to music. For some people, it’s easiest to express feelings as visual images.

Writing Songs or Learning to Play an Instrument as Part of Addiction Recovery

For those who seek a more active musical experience, writing songs and/or playing an instrument can be useful as part of the recovery process. Creating music helps a person find their voice away from the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

Expressing anger, sadness, frustration and anxiety by writing song lyrics can be a tool for emotional healing, no matter what type of trauma or obstacle a person is trying to overcome. Those struggling with addiction might write about the effects of their substance abuse, or they might use songs to explore how domestic violence, child abuse or PTSD from military service has complicated their recovery.

Songwriters can either create their lyrics first and find an instrument to accompany the song after it is written, or they can write lyrics to fit a pre-made beat. Creating a chorus or hook first is often seen as the best approach to writing, although someone interested in songwriting for therapeutic benefits may wish to brainstorm many ideas and then choose the most suitable ones at a later date.

Play a musical instrument promotes concentration

Learning how to play a new musical instrument or working to further develop existing musical skills promotes concentration, which helps the person in recovery deal with the feelings of mental fuzziness that are a frustrating yet common part of the path to sobriety. Mastering a new skill promotes feelings of accomplishment, which can boost self-esteem. This can be particularly useful for those who first started experimenting with drugs and alcohol due to a lack of emotional support and encouragement from the people around them.

No reason to let age or past musical training hold you back

Many people believe it’s imposition to learn an instrument as an adult, since the majority of music education programs focus on instruction for young children. However, James Lenger, the founder of Guitar Cities and a longtime music instructor to both children and adults, points out that adult students have a stronger understanding of music because they’ve spent a lifetime listening to songs and have the intellectual capacity to understand abstract concepts such as the notes on a scale. If you have the desire to learn to play an instrument, there’s no reason to let your age or lack of past musical training hold you back.

Drums are often recommended as a good instrument for adults to learn since the basic process of creating a rhythm is not too difficult for a beginner. In Complementary Therapy for Addiction: “Drumming Out Drugs,” Michael Winkelman, PhD, MPH, reports that drumming circles offer benefits such as providing a constructive release of emotional trauma and promoting connection to others via the creation of improvisational music.

For those who do not follow any organized religious tradition, drumming circles provide a secular way to access a higher power and apply spiritual perspectives. For these reasons, drumming circles are an effective addiction therapy even when other counseling modalities have failed to provide the desired results.

Acoustic guitar is popular with adult beginners

The acoustic guitar is another instrument that is quite popular with adult beginners. Learning four basic chords, a basic strum and basic picking will allow you to play hundreds of different songs immediately. Guitars come in many different styles, including smaller “parlor” guitars that are popular with petite women who find a larger guitar too big to comfortably hold.

They might not be the first instruments you think of when discussing your favorite music, but the fiddle and mandolin are well suited for playing melody and are easy to play intuitively in any key. The eight strings on a mandolin are tuned in pairs. Since the pairs match the four strings in a fiddle, the two instruments are naturally complementary.

For someone who has an elementary understanding of the musical staff and notes, a trumpet, clarinet or saxophone would offer an appropriate level of challenge without causing unnecessary frustration. It’s especially helpful if you have a friend or family member who has already played the instrument you wish to learn. In many cases, adult learners subconsciously pick up the basics by watching others perform.

Performing as a Therapeutic Process

There’s nothing wrong with listening to music or privately creating songs for your own personal therapeutic benefit. However, taking the plunge and performing in front of others may aid in your substance abuse recovery.

In The Atlantic, Scott Douglas outlines the results of a study showing that performing music releases endorphins. Often referred to as the body’s natural opiates, endorphins produce feelings of euphoria and help inhibit the transmission of pain signals. The release of endorphins that a musician experiences while performing is scientifically similar to the “runner’s high” an athlete gets after a big race.

The primary reason performing music is beneficial is the process of playing an instrument or singing a song engages the whole body. Passively listening to music may make you feel happy, but engaging your whole body in the process maximizes the therapeutic value.

Groups dedicated to music therapy for addiction recovery

There are groups that are actually dedicated to music therapy for addiction. Rockers in Recovery helps those struggling with addiction utilize the benefits of music by organizing events and festivals promoting a clean and sober lifestyle.

Taking the First Steps Toward Recovery

If you’re struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, help is just a phone call away. Give 12 Keys Rehab a call any time, day or night, to speak to one of our caring and compassionate staff. Our lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help connect people struggling with addiction with the tools they need to make a lasting recovery.

The Addiction Blog