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  • Alisa Rao

A Brief History: Music Therapy

The form of “music therapy” most commonly known today is in reference to the practice introduced in 1921 by professional harpist/choral director Willem Van de Wall. While his scientifically acclaimed ideas would be the conventional starting point, it’s important to look at music therapy’s history holistically to truly appreciate the breadth of it’s value. Let’s take a look into how “music therapy” was applied before times of developed medicine, and how it evolved into what it is today.




Music as a therapeutic tool, Vienna: (1820):

It’s certainly synthesizable that music was used to aid in many health related troubles before this, Vienna is an important mile stone in the holistic development of this practice. Highly accredited Austrian Psychiatrist, Bruno Görgen, took the first steps into treating the still controversial topic of “Moral Therapy”, or what has evolved to being mental illness. His findings and implementations in psychiatric wards proved to be absolutely essential for the time being.

This is because psychiatric patients were treated with severe neglect, as mental illness was deemed incurable and those victimized were only done so due to their lack of moral discipline. It was only until the Age of Enlightenment (1715) that these pretenses were alleviated. Görgen’s incorporation of music was informal, but sufficient. The practice itself was carried out in personal attribution to the patient’s “state of sensitivity”, via the act of playing music and dancing. It found itself prevalent most in patients that suffer from manic thoughts and fantasies that restricted their ability to function throughout the day. Concepts regarding natural movement and rhythm provided the logical foundations of this practice. There was no “specific process” carried out, as it was conceptualized more as a process of emotional expression rather than a guided act. Music served as distraction and entertainment, but it’s lasting impact on patients undergoing treatment separates it from being mere frivolous fun. These ideas inspire other regions of the world to do the same, and it is modified in order to accommodate to maturing medical discoveries and practices.


Music Therapy, WWI-WWII Era: (1913-1950)

During this new-war era, the awareness around disorders such as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) arose greatly. To combat this, community musicians were sent to veteran hospitals around the country in hopes of boosting the morale and optimism of recovering soldiers. Though informal, patients’ consistent positive response, both psychological and physical, had revealed that music had the potential to aid patients in their recovery.

Physicians everywhere began requesting for more musicians, which led to the rise in professional music education globally. Music therapy began to be curated in such a way specific to the needs of the soldiers. It was the time of WW2 that we see the music for therapeutic purposes found its’ way into professional health care facilitations. In 1945, the U.S War Department issued “Technical Bulletin 187”, which detailed a program in which music was used to facilitate reconditioning and occupational therapy in Army hospitals. It was this action that funded the beginnings of research into music therapy as a professional practice, and it’s legitimacy as a form of therapy. This was essentially the root of music therapy in the United States (as opposed to the rest of the world). From this point on, the fundamentals of music as a therapeutic practice found its way into more developed research labs. With a now more accredited beginning, the National Association for Music therapy was founded (1950), with the American Association for Music Therapy (1971) following short after.


Music Therapy Association (NAMT + AAMT) (1998):

Post-War, the concept of musical therapy reached the offices of sociology/neurology, and from then progressed into the profession we know today. An important contributor being Willem Van de Wall. It was after his involvement in the U.S Marine Band in 1917, that his interest in sociology outweighed his desire to pursue a professional music career. He began his study by visiting several psychiatric hospitals and having them initiate in group-singing sessions/organ-playing. He inevitably expanded upon these activities, adding on “ listening to recorded music, attending live performances, classroom instruction in music theory and appreciation, impromptu singalongs, and participation in a variety of musical ensembles.

The foundation of his practice consisted much of Freud’s recent ideologies in environmentalism, and the notion that mental illness itself is rooted in the lack of adjustment to one’s social/institutional-environment. The breadth of his work is expansive much beyond this, but those were his basic guiding principles. Music therapists adopted Van de Wall’s concepts and terms, and they find themselves prevalent still in modern music therapy.









What was then a means of distraction has evolved to being a globally accredited clinical profession and practice. While it is easy to dismiss music therapy as arbitrary means of fulfillment, being knowledgeable about its origins and extensiveness can help combat those false pretenses. Music therapy is not for everybody, but it is quite coveted and deserves distinction for its added value to behavioral science.



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