Most people naturally love music in one form or another. And many doctors consider music a useful tool in treating various illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, depression—and substance use disorder.
Ways that music is being used in addiction treatment include:
- Helping people tap into their creative selves without the stress of performance anxiety.
- Providing a less painful way of tapping into personal emotions.
- Providing alternate means of expressing feelings that may be difficult to put into words.
- Providing rhythm activities to help energize or relax the body.
- Stimulating mindful and meditative states in the brain.
- Distracting from cravings or pain.
- Reducing boredom and loneliness.
- Helping patients sharpen their concentration.
Music has even been used to treat babies born with opiate addiction, whose mothers were addicted during pregnancy. And for patients who dread “talk therapy” but love music, the promise “there’ll be music” can even provide motivation to agree to treatment.
What Is Music Therapy?
There is now a whole class of licensed “music therapists” who work with various styles of harmony and rhythm. Of course, they use more than just music, combining it with standard counseling and other treatment methods. Even so, the phrase may sound a bit flippant to people who know little about the field—some may be at a loss to even picture what it means.
One technical definition of music therapy is “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Translated into lay language, that means: based on medical science’s understanding of how the human physical system responds to various forms of music, playing specific tunes for specific patients in specific professional settings can be used as a tool to aid progress toward specific recovery goals.
The earliest examples of using music therapy to treat substance use disorders come from the 1970s—an era many remember as a time of widespread “recreational” drug use and also as a time of the generations clashing regularly over musical tastes. Licensed music therapists have more sense than to get involved in arguments over whether any style of music is inherently “bad,” “good” or “better.” Just as with music played purely for enjoyment, music therapy uses various styles—and approaches.
Depending on the patient and the practice, therapists may focus on:
- Using music to establish a relaxed atmosphere
- Letting patients move freely to active music or tap out their own rhythms
- Developing an individualized “playlist” for each patient
- Having patients write their own songs (regardless of musical “talent”)
- Focusing on lyrics and what they “say” to the patient
Any of these can be used in individual or group therapy. Lyric- and songwriting-focused approaches are most frequently employed where positive emotional change is the goal. Patients who need to practice relaxation or anxiety relief are often helped by drumming or other music–movement combinations, which increase the sense of personal control.
Is Music Therapy for You?
If you are a serious music lover investigating detox options, and especially if you already find that your desire for a “fix” is diminished by listening to certain forms of music, ask for referrals to local music therapists who specialize in addiction treatment.
There are a few points and cautions to remember with music therapy:
- Always complete physical detox before entering the main music-therapy phase. As with all forms of sobriety therapy, you’ll get more out of it by starting clean and clearheaded.
- Get the help of a licensed and experienced therapist—don’t try to cure yourself by researching music styles and then “self-medicating.” It probably won’t hurt you to listen to (or play) your favorite music on your own as a way of reducing stress or improving your mindfulness, but it won’t help you progress toward sobriety as you would under the guidance of a professional. And if you try to substitute private musical sessions for professional medical treatment, you could procrastinate on proper detox and wind up even sicker.
- Know in advance what specific tunes and styles you already like, how they make you feel, and how these feelings relate to your recovery goals. At the same time, be open to your therapist’s suggestions on trying new forms of music.
- Start a personal journal of your emotional and physical reactions to various types of music. Test your reactions to the same tune at different times and under different circumstances.
- With the help of your therapist and/or a trusted friend, assemble a personal playlist you can use outside of formal therapy sessions. Set a schedule and goals for using the playlist regularly.
- Avoid tunes that are associated with any of your past drug-using experiences or atmospheres—the last thing you want is to introduce any relapse triggers.
- It should go without saying, but—avoid any lyrics that glorify, or make a joke of, drinking or drug use! More than one social commentator has said they don’t believe in bad music, but they do believe in bad lyrics. If you have serious concerns here—some people find the most innocuous words to be personal triggers—stick to all-instrumental music for a while.
- Another “avoid bad lyrics” precaution: remember that in “open” listening situations such as radio, “trigger” songs may occasionally slip into even generally wholesome playlists. You might be safer sticking to pre-vetted playlists at first.
Check out Beach House’s Spotify playlists of recommended songs in four categories:
AlcoholRehab.com. “Music Therapy in Addiction Recovery.” Accessed October 25, 2017.
Aletraris, Lydia, et al. “The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs.” Journal of Addictions Nursing, October 2014, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 190–196. Accessed October 25, 2017.
American Music Therapy Association. “What Is Music Therapy?” Accessed October 25, 2017.
NowThis. “This hospital is using music therapy to soothe babies born with opioid addiction.” July 28, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Water’s Edge Recovery. “News: What Is the Value of Music Therapy in Addiction Recovery?” Accessed October 25, 2017.