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Music Therapy - Healing or Hoax?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The top-selling classical album in the U.S. is a disc of Chant that’s being promoted for its "calming effects." Meanwhile, many hospitals use music as a way to ease patients' pain, lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and advance coping abilities for patients. But not everyone is so convinced. Joining us to debate music's therapeutic benefits: Dr. Clive Robbins, founder of the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy at New York University, and Dr. Steven P. Novella, an American clinical neurologist and president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society.

Our blog: John Schaefer on music therapy

Tell us: What do you think? Is music therapy a method of healing? Or a hoax?


Steven P. Novella and Clive Robbins

Comments [25]

Gabriela Pelosi from São Paulo, Brazil

I am a music therapy student, on the fourth year of graduantion, in Brazil. I really think this is a very import debate. I love the cretive music therapy and a do believe on its effects. I could experience tremeduous changes working with children with mutiples disabilities and also with old people with dementia. Lots of happens, no doubts, having or not quantitative studies to measure what is happening on the brainn. By other hand, those studies are very important, speacially in our cartesian society, and I am sure they will come. Now we are able to see the brain activity - check out the fMRI exams-, we just need time-and economis support..- to research, and wile we dont have this kind of evidence, people in all of world will recieve the benefits of musictherapy, and will get the chance to have so many meanifull kinds of experience with it.

Jun. 25 2009 09:51 PM

"But if there is even the slightest chance of music therapy helping people, why not give it a fair chance"

Because of limited resources? Because there are already a lot of quacks who charge people for the stuff that is unlikely to work?

Mar. 18 2009 08:57 AM
Amber Emmons from Gray, ME

I have to say that I am completely unimpressed with the actions of some of the individuals leaving comments here, and also with such a skeptical, disrespectful position being taken on something that may just help people change lives.

Yes, new-age medicinal practices don't always make perfect sense or produce immediate results in all patients. But if there is even the slightest chance of music therapy helping people, why not give it a fair chance instead of trying to drown it to death in skepticism?

Mar. 10 2009 09:48 AM
Music healing research

Music healing research or music therapy I think it is one of the way to heat our fellings and emotions by hearing the music that relax our body.

Jan. 11 2009 09:28 PM
Kara Phipps

I do not think that music therapy claims to completely heal medical disorders or disabilities. But, it is an evidence-based practice that achieves quantitative and qualitative therapeutic goals. Research supports this.

Music therapy works! And it works on an individual basis. A piece of music is never prescribed, and music therapy is almost always an active process. A therapist uses music that is motivating for the client--music that a client enjoys. This does not “doom” the profession by any means. By definition, music therapy requires a music therapist, a licensed practitioner. A CD will never be music therapy, although it is music and it may be therapeutic.

It is interesting that the neurologist on the show claimed that there was a specific music portion of the brain. This is simply not true—the amazing thing about music is that it activates many parts of the brain, not simply the left or right side. It is interesting also that music therapy was compared to soccer. Music therapy serves many clients, including the elderly, patients in hospitals and persons with disabilities. For how many of these clients is soccer a plausible option? The brilliance of music therapy is that is accessible and noninvasive.

Lastly, music therapy is an engaging and holistic treatment that benefits many but not all people in many different ways. For more info, go to

Jul. 14 2008 08:59 PM
Ms. Terel Jackson, NMT, MT-BC from Maryland

I feel that music therapy may have been misrepresented during this podcast. While I am glad that the dialogue took place, and while I appreciate Dr. Robbins speaking on music therapy’s behalf, I worry that the definition of music therapy was overly generalized to include passive/recreation-based music activities that don’t revolve around college trained practitioners who employ individualized, goal-oriented music interventions. Furthermore, I felt that the dozens of empirical studies (specifically those that have examined the neurophysiological components involved in music perception, music production, music-induced mood vectoring, etc.) were grossly under-represented. I agree with the bloggers who suggested that the guest debaters could have been more evenly matched, but I would like to add that certain music therapy concepts (i.e. carryover, assessment practices, treatment planning, therapeutic dialogue/rapport, therapeutic processes, role of the therapist, role of context etc.) could have and should have been addressed more thoroughly in order to separate clinical “music therapy” from experiences that constitute “music as therapy”…and soccer.

Jul. 14 2008 02:49 PM
Jenny from St. Louis, MO

The previous 2 comments are right on! I believe there needs to be another conversation on this topic with Dr. Michael Thaut or one of his equals. Dr. Novella seemed to need to hear about music "healing" a person. I am in no way nearly as qualified to answer this question, but I would like to throw out the question, that if "healing" constitutes neurons building and forming in damaged parts of the brain or even non-damaged parts (causing the brain to reorganize due to a damage), because of music, would that be considered "healing?" I believe it does based on research and scientific data as well as personal experience. I request another interview with Dr. Novella, as it is only fair that something being attacked should have the right to defend itself properly and with the research and data that "is" out there.

Jul. 14 2008 11:39 AM
Victoria from Oceano, CA

I am a board certified music therapist with an advanced certificate in neurologic music therapy(NMT). I am very sadden to hear Dr. Novella's comments. Apparently he is not aware of the Neurologic Center for Music Therapy at Colorado State University. Every intervention that I use is completely evidenced based. Our training and continued education is review by Neuroscientists, Neurologists as well as Neuro Music Therapists. You must read "Rythmn, Music & the Brain" by Dr. Michael Thaut. The book is an in depth explanation of the interventions used.
I have also worked with Dr. Clive Robbins. So many of us are grateful to his & Nordoff's vision...and his continuing education to the future Music Therapists. It appears that Dr. Novella has a lot of catching up with the rest of the field of Neurology. I have just recently returned from the World Congress of Neurosciences & Music in Montreal, where NMT was presented and highly regarded by the scientists. We now have more developed technology (i.e. PET scans, fMRI ) just to mention a couple, which are being used to see the true application of MUSIC to the brain and studying the findings.
I challenge you to have an interview with Dr. Michael Thaut to "get the rest of the story".

Jul. 13 2008 11:58 PM
BriAnne from Miami, FL

I am a board certified music therapist and I hold a master's degree in the field. While this broadcast was useful in bringing awareness to the practice of music therapy, the topic was presented on an uneven playing field. Because Dr. Novella is a neurologist, the central debate of the episode seemed to be veer towards the existence of scientific evidence that shows what effect music is actually having on the brain. There is a whole world of research in Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT), which was never mentioned in the broadcast, that seeks to answer this very question. Dr. Clive Robbins is a tremendous, amazing, and knowledgeable music therapist. I cannot say enough good things about him, but neurology is not his area of expertise. In pitting him against a neurologist, two completely different conversations were happening in the guise of one topic. For more information on Neurologic Music Therapy visit the website for the Center for Biomedical Research in Music:

Jul. 12 2008 09:36 PM
Amy Clarkson from New Jersey

Thank you for bringing music therapy to public awareness through your show. While the field of music therapy is one that is still growing and evolving, it has a proud history, grounded in research and evidence-based practice. I have been a practicing, board-certified music therapist for 15 years. In my work, I have seen music help young children with autism learn to communicate and relate to others. I have seen people with dementia who cannot remember their own name be able to sing favorite songs with a group of people. I have seen children who come from homes afflicted by domestic violence learn to express themselves in ways that are constructive rather than destructive. I believe that if the skeptics take the time to read the music therapy literature and research that has been done, they will gain a better understanding of the therapeutic benefits of music.

Jul. 02 2008 09:52 AM

I had brain surgery for a weird condition called an AVM about 3 years ago and in the beginning of this ordeal my sister, who is in the medical field and visiting, said "Listen to music." So I did and I still do. It is very important to me. Before my surgery I could take or leave it. But music is part of my every day life now. I don't know if it's therapeutic, but I can't live without it. Any music is fine, from classical, show tunes, rock & Roll, country! By the way, I had to correct this note before sending. And I'm over 50 year old female.

Jun. 28 2008 11:39 AM
Mechelle Chestnut from Brooklyn

On today's show, to compare the work of a psychotherapist to that of a neurologist is difficult (a bit of apples v. oranges). If you wanted to compare within neurology, there are many places and music therapists who work in neurology (right here in NYC at Beth Abraham Hospital is a huge program) along with referencing clearly Oliver Sack's latest book Musicophilia (on music and the brain). Likewise, there could have been a discussion between Dr. Robbins and a psychotherapist from another field or psychologist so they are speaking more closely about the same topic. I believe the guests were placed in a forum that by nature was so broad and vague that it was limiting. It was also unclear to me, as a listener, if you, Dr. Novella and Dr. Robbins and the callers, no less, were speaking of and responding to and "smacking down" on music therapy from an informed and agreed upon understanding of what music therapy actually is, how it is defined, who may practice, and how and where it is practiced. (I know Dr. Robbins was speaking from an informed position but what about everyone else?) Music therapy is not simply sitting on your couch at the end of the day listening to your popular CD of chanting monks to relax. Therapeutic, yes. Therapy, no. I would not have a master's degree, certificate, and license in music therapy if that's all it took.

For more info:

Thank you for this show and the forum to respond.

Jun. 26 2008 06:46 PM
Mechelle Chestnut from Brooklyn

Thank you for having Dr. Clive Robbins and the topic of music therapy on your show.

My response is informed by my professional identity as a music therapist and as a client of music psychotherapy. Music therapy (improvised), as practiced by a trained, certified, licensed music therapist, gave me the opportunity to grow personally in ways that I had not previously (psychologically and socially). The clients with whom I work, at the public middle school where I am employed full-time, report that they experience increases in self-esteem, anger management, social skills, and understanding and expression of feelings that otherwise impeded their academic and social abilities. I do not have information/data about how their brains have altered as a result because my school does not have an MRI or CAT scanning machine or the like. It is difficult to quantify this information. But the qualities of these children's lives and their respective sense of self are noted by themselves, their parents, and their teachers.

This brings me to the point that I believe this discussion, while on the topic of music therapy, was too vague for the listener to make an informed opinion. Music therapy is broad within itself, it is practiced in various settings with various populations, and has a code of ethics and body of research.

Jun. 26 2008 06:45 PM
eriek from Los Angeles

What is the name of the Classical CD with chanting?

Jun. 26 2008 03:37 PM
jason accime from nyc

John, I was wondering when are you going to have a popular Haitian music band leader on your show, like Tabou Combo, SkahShah, Zenglen, Carimi, Nulook, Dola, etc.. Those bands play Konpa music which has been exploited by our friendly islanders of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, French Guyana,etc... Don't take my words for it. Research it.
By the way,if you have a chance to listen to any Konpa album, you will see the resemblance of Haitian music in that African guitarist that you have on the show today. If you wish, I can provide you with some Haitian music for your listening pleasure. Thanks.

Jun. 25 2008 03:03 PM
jason accime from nyc

There is no healing in music. Therapeutic. Yes.

Jun. 25 2008 02:50 PM
Ted Shred from Atlanta

Hey Cliff! Unfortunately our Governor is too busy holding prayer vigils for rain and legalizing guns in public venues and restaurants to bother with petty cultural initiatives. Say hi to Phitsanuoluk for me.

As far as music therapy, I had a girlfriend who worked with stroke patients and she loved using music in any way possible. Her favorite story was a woman who could no longer talk, but learned that she could SING words that she wanted to say in tones of a song she had known. Kinda cool..

Also, on NPR's show Hearts of Space, the Sunday after 9/11 they played a series of pieces called "Deep Peace". It was wonderful. I don't know if it was therapy in the truest sense but it was certainly calming and I am thankful for the calm it gave me.

Jun. 25 2008 02:32 PM
Kelley from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

This makes me believe in the relationship to music and the physical body:

I contracted Scarlett Fever when I was 6 years old and from that, I developed this chronic cough whenever I would get the flu or cold later in my life. This cough would last 2 months or sounded like a smoker's cough..(I don't smoke) was just embarrassing and loud.

Well, I had always wanted to learn guitar, because I love music. At age 28, I got the confidence to actually do it. And I dove into it and gained skill very fast. And the strangest thing cough went away! For years!

I am convinced that there is a physical connection with playing an instrument, and some weak park of my bronchial immune system.

Jun. 25 2008 02:30 PM
Sam Leopold from Rockland County

Great show! Thanks for taking up the issue.

Jun. 25 2008 02:30 PM

i really can't stand this stiffy!

Jun. 25 2008 02:29 PM
Sam Leopold from Rockland County

The Skeptical Society is the radical fringe. They should not be consulted on such important subjects.

Jun. 25 2008 02:23 PM

listen sir if you were afflicted and you saw what i have seen you would forego those successes because your methods cannot allow you to recognize them?

have you noticed teh medical system crashing?

Jun. 25 2008 02:22 PM
Sam Leopold from Rockland County

Do you think opening up new modes of communication with a disabled person through musical means is not therapeutic? As a music specialist, I've done this on several occasions. I've also worked with Parkinsons patients for 15 years with strong momentary results but the lasting effects are mysterious.

Jun. 25 2008 02:19 PM

I have a friend who is an accomplished musician and has been practicing music therapy for decades in addition to teaching. She started a program using celtic harps - citing research evidence that "it goes in through the breastbone and helps MS patients" among others.

I have also heard that drumming (real vibrations, not recording) helps bones

Also there are healers who use sound because its vibrations change teh magnetic field which effects movement - the woman who taught me about this has discovered a protocol for spinal chord injury (amazing results, i have seen them)

What do you think the Buddhists are doing when they chant? Come on! What a stupid show - do you have to be like cnn on a really interesting approach to healing

Jun. 25 2008 02:14 PM
Cliff Sloane from Korat, Thailand

As a resident of Thailand, I rely on Soundcheck podcasts, and am unable to listen in "real time." So please forgive me if this comment is out of place.

I have known many music therapists, and have attended my share of academic presentations, so I am not unfamiliar with the field. But truth be told, I am as unconvinced by music therapy as I am by the so-called "Mozart Effect." Likewise, and for similar reasons, I am baffled by the relentless ethnocentrism of music cognition.
However, I will still take music therapy's side in a smack-down. If it humanizes the therapeutic experience, bravo. If claiming a Mozart effect gets the governor of Georgia to provide more funding for arts education, hallelujah! Whether music therapy's claims for effectiveness are true are, to me, utterly besides the point. The point is to broaden the range of skills of practitioners. By doing this, you also increase the abilities of practitioners to see what is going on with their clients.

And a slight tangent:
I love music and listen to a huge variety of styles all the time. I would never say that music is relaxing. To me, music requires the same attentiveness and mental effort that driving does. One can still enjoy both, but unlikely to find them relaxing.

Jun. 25 2008 07:23 AM

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