Understanding Music Therapy through relationship between music and emotion

  1. Music Therapy

Music therapy is one of the most widely known and prevalently used forms of art therapy. Music therapy is defined to be the use of music to achieve goals within a therapeutic relationship [1]. Recently, several institutes, including American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), have highlighted that music therapy should strictly be clinical, evidence-based, and should be conducted by credentialed professionals who have completed approved music therapy program [1]. Despite of scientific emphasis these days, music therapy has its root on shamanic music. Shamanic music, usually rhythmical and repetitive, was used in traditional healing practices to facilitated trance induction during the ritual, which was the process of a healer directly contacting a patient’s spirit to cure [2]. This somewhat ritualistic history of music therapy has revoked criticisms from skeptics that music therapy is not truly scientific approach of treating diseases, implying that clinical approach of music therapy is nonsense. In order to counter act criticism, several case studies about music therapy being used to cure psychological and physiological disorders have been conducted. Successful results have shown in treatment of bulimia [3], depression [4], pain control [5] and Alzheimer’s disease [6], and many others. Although these studies show that there is correlation between music therapy and successful treatment of the disorders, they don’t do good job on explaining why music therapy improves the symptoms of the diseases. In addition, we can’t find specific mechanism of music therapy treatment since music therapy process usually can’t have standardized treatment due to the nature of music therapy that music therapists have to flexibly tailor their method of approaching according to the patients’ responses [7]. Based on the readings and several researches published, one of the factors that explain music’s impact on humans while encompassing the existence of variable responses among different individuals is emotion. In this research, music therapy’s treatment mechanism is explained by exploring the relationship between music and emotion.

  1. Emotion and Body

Emotion is often defined as positive or negative experience that is associated with a particular pattern of physiological activity [8]. There are several theories of how humans develop emotions but the most reasonable and widely accepted theory supported by psychologists is two-factor theory, which suggests that emotions are caused by both physiological arousal and the situational context that resulted in the physiological arousal [8]. For instance, when we find snake while sitting on the grass, the body will react first as the heart will start to pound and muscles will contract. Then our brain will start to look for the reasonable factor in the surrounding that caused the bodily reactions. When the brain notices the presence of snake, it makes logical inference that the emotion that is related to both a snake and pounding heart is fear.

Based on what emotion is, we can already tell than emotion and condition of our body is closely related. Emotions can affect our body as well as condition of our body can affect emotions. Generally, unstable emotions are likely to cause unstable physiological and psychological condition, but there are different pathways how this happens. There can be two main paths, either due to the harmful rewarding system or due to trauma.

2.1 Harmful rewarding system

2.1.1 Physical harms

According to the hedonic principle, humans are naturally motivated to experience happy and pleasing emotions and avoid negative emotions. When people experience negative emotions due to their surroundings, they tend to find rewarding subjects that will give them pleasing, positive emotions to compensate the negative emotions. When these rewarding subjects are something that are harmful for our bodies, they do physical harms and one of the very good examples shown here is a case study about how one’s emotion to our body. Most common examples are drinking, smoking, and using drugs. Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs stimulate our brain to produce chemicals such as dopamine and endorphin that make us “feel good”. However, long-term use of alcohol results in liver damage, cigarette causes failure of lung, and drugs can negatively affect our skin, heart, and many other organs in our body depends on what drugs are used. In addition, when rewarding system becomes another reason of causing negative emotion, it is also considered to be harmful rewarding system. A case study of a woman who suffered with Bulimia Nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating followed by purging, is a clear example of this [9]. A woman, who is called as Ms. H in this experiment, experienced an unhappy childhood. Her parents’ indifference to Ms. H gave her pressure to fulfill her parents’ expectations and to gain their attention. Stress coming from this situation required her to seek emotional relief. According to Ms. H, she thought that she “cured her sadness by eating sweets”. However, wanting control her weight at the same time, she started vomiting. Although Ms. H became an adult and left her family, her eating habit continued. Her rewarding system to compensate her negative emotions coming from her family was “eating”. However, eating a lot made her fat, which also caused negative emotion, so she had to reward herself by finding the way to be skinny. However, at this point, her way of maintaining skinny body became binge eating and vomiting, which is unhealthy and harmful way that is destroying her digestive system.

2.1.2 Psychological harms

Harmful rewarding system can also result in unstable psychological condition. Alcohol, cigarettes and several of the drugs results in tolerance and dependence, which means that as people use them, they need it in higher amount, more often, and become addicted to it. Addiction is dangerous as it results in negative emotion if one stops using those products.

2.2 Trauma

Trauma is due to the persistence, which is unexpected and intrusive recollection of life events that we do not want to remember. This phenomenon is very closely related to our emotions we felt during the event, since experiences with strong, and usually negative emotions are vividly recollected than other memories. This is due to amygdala, part of our brain, as it results in release of stress-related hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) to prepare our body for threats when we experience strong arousal caused by strong emotion. These hormones have effect of making the memory more solid and vivid when it is encoded in our brain [8].

With all these studies and examples, we can reasonably assume that our emotions have impact on our body through several mechanisms. Therefore, we expect that if we can show that the music affects our emotion, we can show that music affects our body condition.

  1. Music, Consciousness, and Emotion

Before we consider the relationship between music and emotion, we need to think about how our brains perceive music. There are usually two ways our brain receive information from outside sources; we do consciously or unconsciously. Consciousness is very important factor to consider when we are trying to explore how music is encoded and processed in our brain. According to Clarke, there are two different forms of how the melody is perceived by individual. The first form is by primary memory, which indicates that we instantly catch the melody as it flows but the memory doesn’t last long and we forget the part before what we are currently listening to, unless there is continuous presence or repetition of the same melody. The other form is by secondary memory, which indicates that we store the complete melody in long-term memory and recollect it. Listening is can’t be uniform, so depends on individuals and depends on situation, either primary memory or secondary memory can be used, or both can be used together, forming “Total memory” [10].

After music comes into our brain, now we get to be aware of the music. Awareness of music is an active mental process, which means that our brain not only accept the fact that music is there, but also become aware of the situation and context when the music was played, and even react to the music by showing body movement. This whole process of awareness eventually leads to production of some kind of emotion by music. Good example of this is when we feel happy and automatically dance along exciting music when we listen to it. Our brain is aware of the presence of the music, and at the same time, perceives information about the situation in which the music is playing. When the brain realizes that people around me who are listening to the same music are smiling, which is a universal facial expression indicating happy mood, then the brain makes logical inference again, matching the excited bodily arousal and music that’s played and labels the experience as “happiness”. After that experience, we know that in convention, that kind of music should produce happiness when we listen to it. Therefore, music becomes a cue to evoking specific kinds of emotion.

It is known from long time ago that sound has power of evoking strong emotions [11]. Specific characteristics of music that causes emotional arousal were studied as early as Aristotle’s area. According to The politics, Aristotle suggests that different modes, rhythms, and instruments produce different emotional effects. For example, Dorian mode music produces “moderate and settled temper”, whereas, the Phrygian mode music (E to E) is “exciting”. Cooke’s study also suggests that there are certain feelings that can be obtained by certain patterns of the music. For instance, ascending major third (doh-mi) gives joyous feeling while major sixth (doh-la) gives mood of longing for pleasure, while minor sixth suggests anguish and anxiousness and augmented fourth (triton) represents hostile emotion [11]. The fact that a lot of people experiencing common emotion for the music with similar melodic intervals, patterns, and loudness effectively supports our explanation how we experience emotion by interpreting both the music and surroundings at the same time.

However, not all the people feel the same with the same music and this is the major factor that makes music therapy to never be standardized. An individual may have experienced fearful and unhappy situation while they were listening to certain music that generally evokes happy emotion to most people. In this case, the individual are likely going to experience negative emotion while listening to that specific music.




Aldridge, D. 1994. Alzheimer’s disease: Rhythm, timing and music as therapy. Biomedicine & Pharmaco therapy 48 (7): 275-81.

“American Music Therapy Association.” Definition and Quotes about Music Therapy. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://www.musictherapy.org/about/quotes/.

Bauer, S. 2010. “Music Therapy and Eating Disorders- A Single Case Study about the Sound of Human Needs.” Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 10(2). Accessed October 22, 2015. https://voices.no/index.php/voices/article/view/258/21.

Clarke, David. Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Edwards, Jane. 2005. Possibilities and problems for evidence-based practice in music therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy 32 (4): 293-301.

Maratos, A. S., C. Gold, X. Wang, and M. J. Crawford. 2008. Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Online)(1): CD004517.

Moreno, Joseph J. 1995. “Ethnomusic therapy: An interdisciplinary approach to music and healing.” The Arts in Psychotherapy 22 (4): 329-38.

Schacter, Daniel L., and Daniel Todd Gilbert. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 2009.

Thompson, William Forde. Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Whitaker, Mauree H. 2010. Sounds soothing: Music therapy for postoperative pain. Nursing 40 (12): 53-4



3 thoughts on “Understanding Music Therapy through relationship between music and emotion

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article on music therapy. The article mentioned music and the relationship it plays on our emotions which I found fascinating. I was reading another article about music therapy except it was about addicts and alcoholics that got me curious about this and had me do some more research.

    Should anyone else be interested to see how this would help others here’s the page I looked at https://www.pbinstitute.com/how-music-can-help-your-recovery/

    Hopefully, this article can help and make parents proactive in combating addiction and understanding how music can change their emotions!

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