Passive and Active Music Therapy


Music listening, where an individual is listening to live or recorded music, is considered passive because no music engagement or active participation is involved. Though some differentiate therapeutic music listening alone as a therapy from clinical music therapy, music listening is listed as one of the many techniques used in music therapy (“American Music Therapy Association,” 2015).

From a neuroscience perspective, passive and active music activities differ in the parts of the brain that they activate. Listening to music engages subcortical and cortical areas of the brain, including the amygdala, medial geniculate body in the thalamus, and the left and right primary auditory cortex (Yinger & Gooding, 2014). Another study demonstrated that the anterior medial frontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus, and temporal poles are engaged when an individual listens to music because he or she could be trying to identify the music maker’s intentions (Lin et al., 2011). In music listening, the individual’s preference for music type also affects the brain regions that are activated. For example, different parts of the brain are activated when the music is self-selected as opposed to when it is chosen by the researchers (Blood & Zatorre, 2001).

Emotional understanding in individuals with autism is related to their ability to communicate socially, and is often considered one of several qualities that are underdeveloped in this population (Hobson, 1995). In a study done in 1999, young children with autism were able to recognize emotional expression in music at an equal level to children without autism (Heaton, Hermelin, & Pring, 1999). Additionally, research suggests that music can help children with autism in increasing their attention and focus, as well as to convey important information, and make their learning environment more enjoyable (Buday, 1995). Based on these papers, a study was done on the effects of background music and song texts on emotional understanding. The researcher found that among the control conditions and experimental conditions of having background music that represented emotion or having verbal instructions only, the background music was most effective in improving emotional understanding (Katagiri, 2009). As stated before, the increased emotional understanding could help individuals with autism improve their social interactions with others.



In contrast to passive music techniques such as listening to music, active music therapy techniques include engaging the client in singing, music composition, and instrument playing. According to the American Music Therapy Association, a majority of the techniques that constitute clinical music therapy are active music therapy techniques (AMTA, 2015c).

Based on fMRI and PET scan studies, active music participation engages more parts of the brain than does music listening alone. In addition to the subcortical and cortical areas of the brain that music listening activates, music participation also engages the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and cortical motor area (Yinger & Gooding, 2014).

A review from 2006 included three small, clinical studies that focused on the short-term effects of music therapy sessions for children with autism. The researchers found that children with autism who played or sang songs composed or chosen by the therapist showed improved verbal and gestural skills (Gold, Wigram, & Elefant, 2006). Another study looked at the effects of improvisational music therapy on preschool children with autism. They found that, compared to a group of children playing with toys, those who participated in the music therapy had improved joint attention, eye contact, and turn taking (Kim, Wigram, & Gold, 2008).

Studying a slightly different audience of middle school students with English language difficulties, a study found that active techniques such as moving to music with a group, unison chanting and instrument playing, musical games using teams, creating informational song lyrics to popular music and dances, active listening to fill in blanks, and rhythmic training all contributed to improvement in the students’ ability to accurately understand and retell parts of stories (Kennedy & Scott, 2005). Active music therapy techniques can also involve group dynamics; in a study sample of individuals with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers found that the group music making showed improvements in mood (Koelsch, Offermanns, & Franzke, 2010). Another study conducted on children and adolescents with social skills deficits used techniques such as music performance, movement to music, and improvisation; the researchers found that the active music therapy improved social competence (Gooding, 2011). Many similar studies have shown that active music therapy techniques are effective within a number of realms.


There is a considerable lack of literature on direct comparisons between the efficacy of active and passive music therapy techniques; however, a few are listed below.

One frequently cited paper in the music therapy field from 1998 explored the effects of active and passive group music therapy. The study looked at 16 pre-adolescents between the ages of 11 and 14 years who were enrolled in a special education program in New York City. The students were divided into groups, and each group received the active and passive music therapy at some point in the timeline. The researchers concluded that choosing the most effective and optimal type of therapy truly depended on the individual. For some of the hyperactive participants with ADHD and similar disorders, listening to music was a way to make them feel safe and calm. The engaging music therapy, on the other hand, may have provided overstimulation that made it difficult for these individuals to focus. For another group of individuals who experienced the passive therapy before the active, the music listening portion may have allowed them to develop their self and social awareness. The active music therapy portion may have subsequently permitted them to explore their emotions and selves (Montello & Coons, 1998). This study provided novel evidence for the claim that music therapy interventions depend on the individual’s needs and desires, a statement that drives music therapy today.

Supporting the Montello & Coons study, researchers sampled 18 aggressive adolescent boys in New Zealand, and used music therapy techniques such as discussing self-selected music, singing, rhythm-based activities, and group song writing. Rather than looking at the differences between the types of music therapy, however, the researchers looked at different settings in which the music therapy interventions would be helpful. They found that the individuals who were hyper aroused required structured and individualized treatments because in a classroom setting, the individuals with ADHD became more disruptive after their music therapy session (Rickson & Watkins, 2003).

Another study conducted in 2005 explored cancer patients’ preference for music therapy, and whether they preferred passive or active music activities. The researchers surveyed cancer patients who were undergoing their first or second outpatient chemotherapy. They found that 85% of the sample was interested in a music intervention, and that 44% of these patients preferred music listening while only 17% preferred music making. The explanation given for these preferences was that cancer patients might not have the energy needed to participate in active music engagement, and that younger patients may be more familiar with music listening since it is a more common practice than music making is. Interestingly, prior experience with music making did not affect the patients’ preference of music listening over music making (Burns, Sledge, Fuller, Daggy, & Monahan, 2005).


Author: Roshni Prakash