Effects of Music Therapy in Pediatric Mental Health

Submitted by Kelsy J Addington

Tags: adolescents effects mental health music therapy pediatric pediatric mental health pediatrics therapy

Effects of Music Therapy in Pediatric Mental Health

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Whether it is the simple melody of a lullaby to the crashing drums of rock and roll, music evokes an emotion in all of its listeners. Music has been around for centuries creating an environment of healing (McFerran, 2011).  When working with pediatric mental health patients, pharmacological interventions are often the solution to manage symptoms and negative feelings.  However, these interventions can lead to serious side effects including respiratory depression, GI disturbances, and altered level of concentration.  These side effects will not aid in the ultimate goal of healing for the child (Austin, 2010).  Can music have beneficial effects in children with mental health disorders?  This paper aims to examine the literature on the benefits of music therapy in children with mental disabilities.

Music therapy is an alternative therapy using trained musical therapists along with some form of music in a variety of care settings.  The goal of music therapy is to meet adequate health outcomes for patients of varying ages and health conditions.  Patients may participate either passively (listening to music) or actively (making music) with the therapist in order to achieve the desired outcome (Naylor, Kingsnorth, Lamont, McKeever & Macarthur, 2011).  The therapist works with the participant to determine what type of music therapy will be most beneficial to the particular person (McFerran, 2011).  As the relationship with the patient and therapist builds, the therapist can begin to understand the patient’s emotions and interactions through music (Odell-Miller, 2011).

Music is taken in through the ear, the sound is processed in the mind, and the body responds physically or emotionally (McCaffrey, 2008).  Research has discovered several explanations for the therapeutic effects of music therapy.  One way music works is through the process of entrainment, or the body becoming one with the musical rhythm.  For example, a lullaby has a slow melodic rhythm that causes the body to take on that rhythm and relax (Briggs, 2011).  In addition, neuroscientific evidence has revealed the release of dopamine and endorphins in response to music.  These substances induce feelings of happiness and joy.  Finally, brain imagery studies are being introduced, suggesting mirror neurons contribute to the positive effects of music on the body (McFerran, 2011).

Music therapy has been studied in children with various physical and mental illnesses in a variety of settings including hospitals, outpatient therapy, and schools.  Over seventeen studies have been completed on the effects of music therapy in this population. The studies consisted of over five hundred participants ranging from toddlers to adolescents.  The goals of the studies were to determine the effects of musical therapy on cognitive functioning, social skills, developmental milestones, coping, and maladaptive behaviors.  To determine the effectiveness, music therapy interventions were compared to no music or other interventions like pharmacology (Naylor et al., 2010).

In children with developmental disorders, two studies explored music therapy’s effect on cognitive function and memory.  This research found improved memory when exposed to familiar music.  When the focus switched to the effects on socialization and cognitive functioning in children with autism, research determined an increased quality and quantity of eye contact and turn-taking behaviors after passive music therapy sessions.  A few studies examined the effects of active music therapy in children with attention deficit disorder.  The results found that the passive music therapy did not influence the children’s behavior.  Finally, when testing the effect of popular music listening in adolescents with mood disorders, it was determined that this intervention produced no behavior or mood change per participant report (Naylor et al., 2010).

Several studies have been performed examining the effects of music composition in adolescents dealing with grief and ineffective coping by examining the effects of eight weeks of music therapy on grief symptoms.  In general, participants reported freedom of expression, increased self awareness, increased empathy towards others, and the increased ability to release trapped feelings. Through music they were able to find a new form of expression in order to sort out feelings of grief (McFerran, 2011).

From the small sample of the literature in my research, I have found that several authors believe there is a lack of high quality research devoted to music therapy.  Some causes of this problem are small sample sizes, lack of consistent outcome measurement, and increased complexity of the chosen interventions (Naylor et al., 2010).   Due to the small amount and scattered evidence, a full conclusion on the effects of music therapy in children with mental health disorders cannot be reached at this time (Austin, 2010).  From the research that has been collected, however, music has been shown to improve cognition, aid in verbal and nonverbal communication, facilitate coping strategies, and improve maladaptive behaviors (Naylor et al., 2010).

Music has been used for centuries as a healing intervention providing holistic patient care (McFerran, 2011).  One responsibility of a nurse is to provide an environment of healing for each patient.  It is important for nurses to be aware music therapy’s effects in children with mental health disorders to provide holistic care (McCaffrey, 2008).  Recently, music is being studied in children living with various mental health disorders.  Although more high quality research is required, music has been shown to aid in communication, socialization, memory, and coping (Naylor et al., 2010).  It is important that nurses become educated on music’s benefits when working with this patient population.    Music is an effective and therapeutic intervention absent of harmful side effects associated with other therapies (Briggs, 2011).


Austin, D. (2010). The psychophysiological effects of music therapy in intensive care units. Pediatric Nursing, 22(3), 14-20.
Briggs, T. (2011). Music's unspoken messages. Creative Nursing, 17(4), 184-186.
McCaffrey, R. (2008). Music listening: Its effects in creating a healing environment. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, 46(10), 39-44
McFerran, K. (2011). Music therapy with bereaved youth: Expressing grief and feeling better. The Prevention Researcher, 18(3), 17-20.
Naylor, K., Kingsnorth, S., Lamont, A., McKeever, P., & Macarthur, C. (2010). The effectiveness of music in pediatric healthcare: A systematic review of randomized control trials. Evidenced-Based and Complementary Alternative Medicine, 1-18.
Odell-Miller, H. (2011). Value of music therapy for people with personality disorders. Mental Health Practice, 14(10), 34-35.