I volunteer my writing services to a local San Diego non-profit dedicated to music therapy. This organization works to enhance the quality of life for people suffering from various ailments or situations. Improving the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of children with serious and chronic illnesses. Working with seniors (some with dementia or other cognitive impairments) in nursing homes and assisted living facilities; facilitating social interactions, helping improve memory and cognition, and enriching day-to-day life. Helping soldiers deal with PTSD, substance abuse, and other trauma-related physical and psychological diagnoses. Working with teen parents and their children to strengthen family bonds and encourage preschool development. Music therapy is also used in autism, Alzheimer’s, mental health, special education, pain management, drug addiction, and other kinds of treatment. I’m a musician and have always felt that music has tremendous healing power so I was excited to be able to write for and about a cause that I really care about. What makes music therapy even closer to my heart is that it has been proving very effective as a complementary therapy with traditional addiction treatment methods.

So what exactly is music therapy? The American Music Therapy Association defines it 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.

Music therapists are licensed health care professionals with degrees in the field. They come up with treatment plans based on the needs of the individual or group of patients. Songwriting, drumming, lyric analysis, singing, and movement to music are common types of sessions that music therapists will guide patients through to work towards treatment goals. These goals are dependent upon the situation and the person but they are specific and ultimately meant to improve quality of life.

A few types of music therapy are especially well suited for working through issues that recovering addicts often face. Studies done with patients in rehab facilities have found that other parts of the program benefited from participation in music therapy. In active addiction, we use drugs to numb out feelings that we do not want to deal with. We isolate and withdraw from the people around us and it can be difficult to relearn communication skills. Songwriting is a great way to learn how to identify and express those feelings that we stuffed down inside for so long. The lyrics and melodies that one creates in writing provide insight into deeper-level emotions and allows the creator to better externalize things that may be a challenge to express through simply talking. When addicts begin to open up and are able to share honestly about what’s going on inside, they can receive feedback and help, then learn coping skills for handling negative emotions. Personal creativity through songwriting opens up the channels of communication and can provide a sense of accomplishment. Building blocks for more confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth; integral parts of overcoming guilt and shame. Many rehabs incorporate the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Forthright self-appraisal is crucial in getting to the bottom of the root causes of our addictions and in particular, working the 4th and 10th steps.

When it comes to playing music, the choice of instrument and style of music a person gravitates towards can say a lot about them but drumming is unique when it comes to music therapy. Steady percussive rhythms affect low-frequency brain waves, called theta waves, which promote altered states of consciousness in similar ways that drugs do. Drumming can be a meditative practice. It’s an alternative path to pleasurable states of mind other than drugs. Focusing on the external task of playing is a good way to experience getting out of your own head, breaking the cycle of obsessive and compulsive thoughts. Letting go of self-centeredness is one of the biggest struggles for addicts. Playing drums in group sessions, where participants stay in rhythm and time with one another, fosters communications and connection with self and others. The players have to be self-aware and have awareness of how their own drumming fits in with the drumming of the rest of the group. Bringing people together in this type of activity creates bonds and a stronger sense of community. In a rehab setting, that gives all the patients a better chance at recovery. The cornerstone of 12-step programs is a loving Higher Power and newfound spirituality. The spiritual and meditative practice of drumming can be a powerful way for addicts to establish and build on a relationship with that Higher Power.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common therapy used in treating addiction. It is a type of psychotherapy that has patients challenge negative ideas, beliefs, and thinking patterns that lead to problem-causing and self-defeating behaviors. These thought processes are believed to develop in childhood and persist into adulthood and become almost automatic. By working to change negative thinking patterns, addicts can deal with emotional problems and create new thought processes to problem-solve and communicate more effectively. One particular challenge in addiction treatment is the willingness of patients in therapy and rehab to participate in the program. Patients who are not motivated to participate have a much higher risk of discontinuing treatment and relapsing. Studies show that music therapy participation in rehabs increases patient willingness to participate in other kinds of therapy, including CBT. The positive experiences of the music therapy motivates patients to attend further music therapy sessions and this willingness carries over to CBT sessions and other program groups and activities.

Music therapy is a wonderful tool inside or out of rehab. Rehab is often the starting point of the recovery journey, almost like a training ground. The skills learned there are meant to help addicts lead normal lives, integrated into society. This beginning stage of recovery is a formative time and participation in a rehab program can build a solid foundation on which the recovery will stand. Music therapy encourages this participation. It’s a fun way to learn and apply those skills. There is no prior musical background or experience required.

Research into music therapy as a complementary therapy to traditional addiction treatment has been promising. Results are positive and most people respond favorably to music therapy. It is an exciting area of exploration and study. The methodological possibilities are virtually endless. There is no real downside, no risks or side effects like with pharmacological methods. Music in and of itself is a wonderful thing and what it can do when put to practical use in a treatment setting is amazing. It does not take away or replace any other parts of recovery, it complements them.

I believe in the recovery potential of rehab, CBT, and 12-step programs. These things have been working for me and I see them at work in the lives of, literally, hundreds of other addicts. There are reasons why they are standard in thousands of rehabs across the country and why there are so many NA and AA groups across the globe. With that being said, the success of these methods relies upon the willingness and effort of the individual. You have to be willing to go to meetings and put in the step work. You have to actively participate in rehab programs. You have to be open to listening to a therapist and practicing what you learn. No one can do it for you.

What makes music therapy such an effective tool is that it is a non-threatening and approachable way to develop that willingness. Willingness that carries over to participating in other therapies and treatment and most importantly, participating in life. In active addiction, we run from our fears and isolate ourselves from the world at large. Participation in life means we face those fears and walk through the difficult times that we were afraid of. Recovery gives us the strength to walk through them clean and sober, on a path to happiness and serenity.