Music as Medicine: Musical therapy provides new avenues of communication

Music predates human language – it is woven into the history of every culture and into the rites and rituals of every religion. What is less known is that one of its most ancient uses was not as a form of expression – music was also one of the earliest forms of medicine. 

For centuries, music has been an integral aspect of the healing arts. The Aboriginal people of Australia were the first known culture to heal with sound. Sound vibration is part of healing in yogic traditions. Chinese Qi Gong uses specific mantras, chants and sounds to stimulate specific organ systems in the body. Tibetan singing bowls, Himalayan suzu gongs … the instruments and methods are endless throughout recorded history. Alternative healing has embraced music therapy for many years, but today, research into the neuroscience of music is discovering just how extensive the  powers of music can be. 

I spoke with Annette Mozzoni, director of education with RI Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School, and learned that music therapy and wellness has been a part of their school’s program since 2005; they currently employ two certified music therapists in addition to the skilled musicians on staff. In 2011, they launched a partnership with the Autism Project, an organization committed to serving the needs of the teachers, parents and caregivers who work with children on the autism spectrum. Mozzoni said that the majority of people who seek help with their music therapy program have an autism spectrum disorder. Music therapy is especially effective for these clients because of its ability to address their styles of speech and nonverbal communication skills. Each client who comes to the school is carefully assessed to determine the appropriate therapy, which might include creating, singing or moving to and/or listening to music. Results from this type of therapy can transfer to other areas of their lives, providing avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words.


Not all therapy at the school focuses on psychological and neurological disorders – Jane Murray conducts individual one-hour sessions of body mapping, a therapy that applies the principles of anatomy to movement. This program is popular with musicians who are suffering the repetitive motion injuries that can come as the result of practicing and performing the same highly controlled movements over and over again in their work. During sessions, students learn the mechanics of their own bones, muscles and connective tissue, and develop the ability to correct inaccurate movements. The result is an improvement in both the structural health and the performance and efficiency of instrumental players and vocalists. 

Another program offered at the school focuses on the Alexander Technique, named after creator Frederick Matthias Alexander, a dramatic performer in the 1890s who specialized in reciting classical Shakespeare. When voice loss during public performances threatened to end his career, Alexander began developing his technique, using mirrors to observe himself. He discovered that poor habits in posture and movement were to blame for both his damaged spatial self-awareness and his health. The highly effective technique he developed is now taught at performing arts schools in Europe, the US and around the world, including such prestigious institutes as the Juilliard School and UCLA. It is not only studied by numerous actors and musicians, but also by athletes to enhance performance. The results were so impressive that the technique has been investigated by medical researchers in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease; as yet there is insufficient evidence to warrant insurance coverage.

Why does music therapy have such a powerful effect on our brains and our bodies? The human brain and nervous system are hard-wired to distinguish music from noise and to respond to rhythm and repetition. And while this provides humans with entertainment and the motivation for movement, it also produces activity changes in brain structures – the amygdala, hypothalamus, insular and orbitofrontal cortex – known to modulate heart function. We are just beginning to learn the potentials of music therapy in the treatment of conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to PTSD and dementia.

Mozzoni sums it up: “Music therapy unlocks barriers and creates a pathway out of isolation. Through this work you also find the connective tissue that builds a bridge for expression and communication.”

To learn more, visit