Seven Ways to Make Music Therapeutic (No Skills Required!)

Written by Rachel H.

April 18, 2022

You don’t have to have any background in playing or singing to make music therapeutic. As a music therapist, I believe that we are all musical beings, from the way we express our excitement and frustration to the way we move and respond to songs. 

Get intentional about how music can make an impact in your mental health

I often encourage my clients to begin to notice what role music already plays in their daily lives, such as certain songs they keep coming back to or the way that their mood might shift after hearing a new song that excites and inspires, or perhaps touches on some deep truth in a fresh, new way.

Curious to find out how to bring out the healing and connecting elements of music in your life? Here are seven ways to get started: 

  1. Shift your mood and energy with a playlist

If you’re feeling down, you might feel compelled to put on a sad song that resonates with that feeling – this is a good thing! By playing music that matches your mood and/or energy level, you are meeting yourself where you are, extending compassion and validation to your experience. This in itself can actually make you start to feel better.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling like you’re getting stuck in the mood or emotion that you’re starting with, you can use the “iso-principle” technique to gradually shift to the more desired mood/emotion. For example, if you are feeling really angry, you might start with a song that reflects this in its lyrics, speed and volume (probably loud and fast). Rather than going right to a more cheerful, relaxed song, you instead allow that angry feeling to continue to be expressed, but in songs that perhaps are moving toward a place of release and acceptance. 

  1. Soothe your nervous system with your voice 

When we sing, we automatically engage our breath and stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that brings on that cool, calm and collected feeling). Put on a favorite song and sing along – notice how you feel before, during and after.

Not quite ready to burst into song? That’s OK. Even making an audible sigh or humming can have a similar effect as singing. If you’d like, you can even place a hand over your chest to feel the resonance this creates in your body.

  1. Neutralize strong emotions with bilateral stimulation 

Bilateral stimulation happens when we alternate between using the right and left sides of our body. This can help to bring on a relaxation response, increase the flexibility of our thinking and help us integrate the two sides of our brain more fully. In EMDR therapy, bilateral stimulation is used to help reprocess traumatic memories.

So many forms of music-making involve natural bilateral stimulation! From drumming to playing the piano, you are alternating the left and right sides of your body. No drums or piano? No problem! Try tapping your desk or bringing out the pots and pans. You don’t even have to make noise – you can quietly tap your thighs or your feet in time to a favorite tune. Get curious about any shifts you notice in your mind, body and mood as you do this.

  1. Listen mindfully to come into the present moment 

When we’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed or scattered, slowing down and focusing on just one thing can help us regain our center. Listening to music in an intentional and mindful way is one way to do this.

You can put on a piece of music you know well or listen to something new – either works! Before you begin, come into a comfortable position (sitting or lying down) and invite yourself to consider the following questions while the music plays

  • What do I hear? Loud or soft? Fast or slow? What instruments? Any vocals? Lyrics that stand out to you?
  • How do I feel? What emotions does the song evoke? How do I feel while I listen to the song?
  • What do I notice in my body? Sensations? Movements? Any places in my body where the music particularly resonates?
  1. Lean into the emotions of a song for cathartic release 

There are times when you just need to feel your feelings – listening to and/or playing/singing something that captures whatever those feelings are can be deeply therapeutic and offer release and relief. Sometimes music expresses an emotion better than words ever could. 

If you are afraid of getting overwhelmed by too much feeling, remember that all songs or pieces of music have a clear beginning, middle and end. You know you won’t be stuck in it forever! Songs offer a sweet container for whatever experiences and emotions you might be processing. 

  1. Connect with your inner child with musical play

As adults, we often forget that play and exploration are still essential to our well-being and growth as humans. We all have little kids inside of us that are likely just dying for some playtime! Approaching music-making or listening in a playful manner can help those inner children get their needs met.

This might look like dancing to a favorite song in your bedroom and/or singing along at the top of your lungs. You might get silly with clapping rhythmically with your hands or picking up a percussion instrument that is lying around (no percussion instrument? No problem! Pots and pans work just fine!). Have kids or know someone who does? Inviting children, who are often less inhibited than adults, to make music with us can be a wonderful invitation to reconnect with our playful spirit.  

  1. Recall fond memories with favorite songs

Music is deeply tied to people, places and things. Just put on a song that you played on repeat  ten years ago and see what happens. You’ll likely recall who you were spending time with, what you were doing and how you were feeling at that time in your life. 

Make this work for you! Make a “time capsule” playlist where you add songs that speak to highlights, important relationships and events in your life. Notice what this does for your mood and energy levels.

You can choose to make music a more intentional part of your life regardless of whether or not you’ve ever considered yourself “musical.” Interested to learn more, or find out more about how working with a music therapist can help you deepen this practice? Reach out today to schedule a free consultation with me.

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