The Therapeutic Value of Music

Every parent wants their child to get straight As and go to college. But with all of the focus on academic achievement, many parents and teens lose sight of the importance of pursuing extracurricular interests like the arts. Adolescents, especially those with behavioral or learning issues, need a creative outlet to express themselves and explore their strengths and passions.

Not only is music enjoyable, it can be therapeutic, particularly for teens who are resistant to traditional talk therapies. In fact, most therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers prioritize “experiential therapy” by offering a range of activities in music and the arts. This is one factor that distinguishes reputable, results-driven therapeutic boarding schools from military schools and boot camps. Participating in music, drama, dance, or other art programs helps teens release pent-up emotions, manage stress, improve mood, and resolve conflicts. These boarding school programs offer tools and skills for lifelong success and fulfillment, rather than simply teaching students to obey orders and conform to a set of uniform standards.

Why Music Is Effective

Most people, even those with physical, cognitive, or emotional problems, have an innate responsiveness to music. Whether you prefer humming along to classic rock in the car, singing opera in the shower, or playing jazz on an instrument, music has its own universal language that appeals to every age group and walk of life.

Research has shown that the rhythm of a song can stimulate brainwaves. Faster songs facilitate concentration and alertness while slower songs promote calmness. These effects frequently last even after you’ve stopped listening. Music also impacts breathing and heart rate, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, boosting immunity, and improving overall health. You don’t have to play an instrument to reap the benefits of music. Positive effects have been noted from simply listening to a song, singing a tune, or clapping along to a beat.

Music Makes You Smarter

For many students, getting straight As may not be as simple as attending class and studying hard. By taking time to learn about and enjoy music, students actually fare better academically. Why? Musical training helps develop the left side of the brain known to be involved with reasoning and processing language, and boosts spatial intelligence (the ability to perceive the world accurately and form mental pictures), which promotes advanced mathematics skills.

In a 1997 study, a group of preschoolers who received piano training performed 34 percent higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability than a second group who received computer training. A McGill University reported similar findings. Researchers noted significant improvements in self-esteem, pattern recognition, and mental representation for students given piano instruction over a three-year period.

Students who study the arts also get better grades and score higher on standardized tests such as the SAT. University studies have found that middle school and high school students who participated in instrumental music scored significantly higher than their peers on standardized tests in the areas of math, science, and language arts. In 2001, SAT takers with musical experience scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 41 points higher on the math portion than students with no experience in the arts.

Using Music to Treat Autism

Music and music therapy have been useful in treating children and teens with autism, Asperger’s, and other autism spectrum disorders since the 1950s. Exposure to music has been shown to open up a wider range of emotions and improve communication and learning for people with autism. This is because music creates a secure structure and predictable environment, which brings comfort in unfamiliar or stressful settings. A child who is comfortable in his environment is more likely to interact with the world around him. At the same time, music can change quickly with irregular beats and patterns, encouraging spontaneous experiences of play and excitement. Meaningful play often reduces obsessive-compulsive patterns and self-harm in people with autism. Because of the nonverbal, non-threatening nature of music, children relate to the notes and rhythms in more productive ways than their interactions with people.

For decades, autism experts have noted that autistic children have unusual sensitivities to music. Some are entirely intolerant of sound, while others have flawless pitch and play instruments with remarkable musicality. According to researchers, some autistic children can learn complete responses when questions and answers are incorporated into a song. People with autism also have made progress in self-awareness, turn-taking, and listening and responding to another person by playing an instrument, banging on drums, or engaging in some form of music-making.

When teachers or therapists use instruments or their own voice to respond to the sounds, cries, and body movements of a child with autism, they encourage the student to create his own language and engage in two-way communication. Studies have confirmed that improvisational music therapy can increase the communicative behavior of children and teens with autism, and that these skills are generalized to real-life contexts like interactions with parents.

Treating Depression and Other Disorders

Listening to or creating music may also be effective in treating depression. A review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit group that reviews health care issues, found that in four out of five randomized trials, music therapy worked better at easing depression symptoms than therapies that didn’t involve music. Researchers noted that while music therapy may not be highly effective when used alone, it is exceptionally useful for teens that are likely to reject a traditional form of counseling.

Evidence also suggests music may be useful in treating eating disorders and ADD/ADHD. In combination with other treatments and medications, music can elicit a calming, sedative effect that slows the heart rate, releases emotion, and reduces stress and anxiety. For children and teens with ADD/ADHD, music can help with managing behavior, focusing on a designated task, and controlling motor impulsivity.

Music is one of the simple joys in life. A catchy beat or soothing melody can provide a sense of control, release of negative feelings, and boost in mood and outlook. Of course, any program in the arts is intended to supplement other therapies and will not resolve behavioral or attention deficits on its own. However, music and the arts can play an important role in helping struggling teens, and should be offered as part of a well-rounded therapeutic boarding school program.