Music for Therapy and Relaxation

By Sara E. Lovelace

According to the 20th century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, music provides order to chaos through structure, and it is this structure that “produces in us a unique emotion having nothing in common with our ordinary sensations and our responses to the impressions of daily life.”

Whether it is the structure of music or the unique emotion it elicits, or both, researchers have found that music provides humans with numerous benefits, including decreasing depression and anxiety as well as a boosting the immune system. In addition to providing a driving beat to energize someone out on the dance floor, it also gently rocks that person into a quiet state that helps them to relax.

Relaxation isn’t just a state of mind, but it is also accompanied by a slackening of muscles and calming of the central nervous system. In theory, relaxation can help people manage their ET better. Music therapists work with people who have ET, and other conditions, using music to assess emotional, physical, social and cognitive well-being, and then designing musical treatment sessions. Music therapy works well to relieve anxiety and stress, both of which can make tremor worse.

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? But research has found that music has the ability to change a person’s brainwaves through tempo, or the beat of the music. According to The American Music Association (AMTA at, music therapy was first used medically in the United States to treat pain in World War I veterans, and it worked.

“Research has shown that music with a strong beat can stimulate brainwaves to resonate in sync with the beat, with faster beats bringing sharper concentration and more alert thinking, and a slower tempo promoting a calm, meditative state,” states Stress Management Guide Elizabeth Scott, MS, in her article “Music and Your Body: How Music Affects Us and Why Music Therapy Promotes Health” on

Furthermore, in an article entitled “Music Therapy to Benefit Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease” by Dr. Concetta M. Tomaino, it is reported that studies on Parkinson’s disease and music therapy have shown that many Parkinson’s patients who focus their attention to the beat of a specific music type display better movement and report an easier time performing successive tasks.

The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, a nonprofit associated with the Beth Abraham Family of Health Services, is located in The Bronx, New York City, NY. The Institute conducts clinical research studies on the effects of music on the human condition with the aim of restoring, maintaining and improving the physical, emotional and neurological functioning in people who affected by stroke, trauma, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases through the systematic use of music. Dr. Tomaino is the director and co-founder of the Institute.

The first step in music therapy treatment, according to Dr. Tomaino, “is to use music that a client identifies with to help them relax. That music may be different for each person, but based on the music therapist’s evaluation the therapist can create listening programs that will help reduce anxiety and enhance relaxation. The second technique is an interactive music therapy program which is often referred to as music psycho therapy.

“In an interactive music therapy situation, a therapist trained in music psycho therapy will engage the client actively in understanding the triggers that cause them to be anxious or nervous or exacerbate the tremors,” Tomaino explains.

The third technique is an intensive music therapy program. Dr. Tomaino says, “The Music Therapy Institute at Beth Abraham Hospital has had significant success. However, this program is significantly reliant upon the determination of the patient to stay motivated.”

Dr. Tomaino shares an anecdote about successful music therapy for a man who has dyskinesia. Dyskinesia is a movement disorder where intentional movement is difficult, and unintentional movement in the form of tics or spasms occur. It is a symptom of several medical disorders including Parkinson’s disease.

“We used electronic music devices and had him play in sequence. In order to do that, he had to be able to control his hands – without tremor – to make each of the sounds. Over several months of doing this twice a week, he was able to gain more control over both of his hands and gained more control over his movements.”

The actual type of music used in a therapy session is based upon an individual’s preference. Some people are more sensitive to jazz while others are more sensitive to classical. However, a patient cannot limit therapy to just a single or few pieces of music or they lose their initial effectiveness.

“Our brains tend to get used to things,” explains Dr. Tomaino, “and because of the acclimation, the brain tends to just ignore it so the therapeutic effect isn’t as great as the first time they listen to it.”However, Dr. Tomaino also notes that if a person associates positive emotions with a particular piece of music, they will always have those positive feelings while listening to the piece, though it may lose its therapeutic influence.

There are certain things that people need to consider before and while pursuing music therapy. The first consideration is that they have a good idea of what makes their tremor worse so they can work with their music therapist to produce a program tailored to their individual needs.

Dr. Tomaino also suggests finding a music therapist who specializes in movement disorders so they have a better understanding of what they are going through and can advise accordingly. The AMTA ( provides a list of credentialed music therapists on its website.

Finally – under no circumstances, stresses Dr. Tomaino – should a person undergoing music therapy stop taking their medications without first talking to their physicians. Music therapists should also be made aware of medications being taken by patients. The more a music therapist knows about past and current treatments, the easier it is for them to create a program around the patient’s individual needs.

It is important to realize that this therapy is continuous. It is not a cure, says Dr. Tomaino. “One can benefit from its effects if they make it part of their lifestyle. The first step is finding music that works.”

Music therapy is not generally covered under most insurance plans. In some states, Medicaid can cover music therapy though the AMTA notes that “companies like, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Humana, Great West Life, Aetna, Metropolitan, and Provident have reimbursed for music therapy services on a case-by-case basis, based on medical necessity.”

Out-of-pocket costs for music therapy in the US are approximately $100 an hour on the East and West coasts, according to Dr. Tomino. In the US interior, costs tend to run a little less.

But, even if one cannot afford the cost of clinical music therapy, the ability of music to calm in everyday settings has value also, whether listening to or singing or playing music.

Preston Boggess, IETF Ambassador to western Virginia, has long appreciated the soothing qualities of music as a singer, performer and listener. At the age of five, he started singing and performing music in public and intended to make music his career. But by the age of 16, ET interfered enough that he had to choose another career path.

“Music provides a way of reducing anxiety and producing relaxation, and this leads to the next step…the reduction of tremor,” says Preston. “Music gets to the heart. It works almost like a drug or taking a series of breaths. It’s the cure to a long stressful day.”

The support groups in Virginia that Preston works with utilize music as a calming influence at their meetings. While the members of the groups are gathering, they will often play soothing harp and electronic piano music.

According to Preston, it makes for a very relaxed meeting.