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Music Therapy and HD

“[Music therapy] is an extraordinary modality, which […] can bring ability where there’s been disability, and freedom where people have been locked in, and it gives delight to people”

                  -Oliver Sacks, M.D. Consulting Neurobiologist and Author, Beth Abraham Hospital.


Music as a form of clinical therapy has been a growing field for some time. The American Music Therapy Association defines Music Therapy as “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.” This less conventional form of therapy is increasingly recognized as an effective and attractive form of intervention for a wide range of healthcare fields.

What defines music therapy?

Music can be a positive experience in many forms, from listening to an iPod to playing the piano. Bedside musicians are a popular use of music in a healthcare setting. However, Music Therapy is set apart as a field and profession distinctly defined and strongly research based. To practice music therapy, music therapists must meet rigorous criteria including a degree in music therapy and a specific credential from the Certification Board for Music Therapists. Thus, music therapists have extensive knowledge of psychology, medicine and music. Therapists begin the client relationship with an assessment of the patient, which helps them to create a specific, personalized treatment plan. Music therapy can include choosing and listening to songs, singing, and playing instruments. The therapist continues to evaluate the patient’s progress throughout the course of treatment, and is therefore able to quantify and interpret a patient’s progress and evaluate the best course for treatment going forward.

Effects of music therapy

Music Therapy has been found to be effective for a remarkably wide range of conditions in studies. In “Partnerships in Care: Uses of Music Therapy in Medical Settings,” a documentary film on music therapy by the American Music Therapy Association, a consulting neurobiologist explains that a person’s response to music is widespread and robust in the brain, and thus patients with different areas of brain damage or diffuse diseases can still respond to music. The measurable impacts of music therapy have been studied in wide range of clinical settings, from trauma patients to cancer patients to patients with neurological damage. Several studies have looked specifically at Huntington’s Disease, and quite a few more have studied the impact of music therapy on applicable aspects of Parkinson’s.
These studies have shown that Music therapy, particularly the instrument-playing aspect, can improve motor functioning, structure movement, and decrease muscle tension. Studies of music therapy and Parkinson’s disease have found that it can significantly reduce bradykinesia, (slowness of movement), a common symptom of HD. Another benefit of instrument-playing therapy is the opportunity for “illness monitoring.” In other words, instrument playing allows patients to monitor their own physical abilities in the context of playing the instrument. The listening aspect of music therapy can also impact motor abilities. For example, the beat of music can help structure rhythmic movement such as walking.
Depression and emotional distress can be strongly influenced by music therapy as well. In general, music therapy has been shown to decrease psychological anxiety, lower stress hormone levels, elevate mood, provide a diversion, and improve motivation for therapy. Mood improvement from music therapy can be significant. One study found that after just a brief music therapy intervention, patients showed significant improvement in three categories: composed versus anxious, energetic versus tired, and agreeable versus hostile (Magee et al 2002).

Further resources for understanding and exploring the option of music therapy are provided below:

Further Reading and Resources

  • The American Music Therapy Association (
  • The Handbook of Neurologic Music Therapy by Michael H. Thaut and Volker Hoemberg
  • Music Therapy in Palliative Care: New Voices by David Aldridge
  • The Journal of Music Therapy
  • Short film: Partnerships in Care: Uses of Music Therapy in Medical Settings by the American Music Therapy Association
  • PBS Newshour: “The Healing Power of Music”



Works Cited:

Aldridge, David. Music therapy in palliative care: New voices. Jessica Kingsley    Publishers, 1999.

Magee, Wendy L., and Jane W. Davidson. “The effect of music therapy on mood states          in neurological patients: a pilot study.” Journal of Music Therapy 39.1 (2002):            20-29.

Maranto, C. “Applications of music in medicine.” Music therapy in health and    education (1993): 153-174.

Pacchetti, Claudio, et al. “Active music therapy in Parkinson’s disease: an integrative            method for motor and emotional rehabilitation.” Psychosomatic         medicine 62.3 (2000): 386-393.

Partnerships in Care: Uses of Music Therapy in Medical    American Music Therapy Association, 14 Mar. 2014. Web.

Paul, Stanley, and David Ramsey. “Music therapy in physical medicine and     rehabilitation.” Australian Occupational Therapy Journal 47.3 (2000): 111-    118.

Thaut, Michael H., and Volker Hoemberg, eds. Handbook of neurologic music therapy. Oxford University Press (UK), 2014.