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Brief History of Music Therapy

Rhythm & Reason Blog, Post By: James E. Riley, MM, MT-BC – (727) 350-7897,

Music Therapy is the compassionate and evidence-based application of music interventions to accomplish non-musical objectives by a Board Certified Music Therapist.  This Brief History of Music Therapy will describe the history of music in healing, the development of music therapy as an allied healthcare profession, and an overview of contemporary Music Therapy practice.  Note: This article relies heavily on a chapter written by William Davis and Kate Gfeller (2008); for a more thorough account, see pp. 17-39 in the book An Introduction to Music Therapy Theory and Practice.


Music is essential to human cultures around the globe and across time.  It is part of who we are, what we feel, how we communicate, what we value, how we learn, and why we remember.  “Anyone who wants to understand human nature, the interaction between brain and culture, between evolution and society, has to take a closer look at the role that music has held in the lives of humans, at the way music and people co-evolved” (Levitin, 2008, pp. 2-3)1.

Music is so central to humanity, that it has been used to improve mental and physical health since antiquity.  Religious and healing rituals of ancient, preliterate cultures perceived music as “extraordinary,” “superhuman,” and “connected with supernatural forces,” with the power to treat illness and improve overall health and wellbeing (Davis & Gfeller, p. 18)2.  Classical Greek philosophers praised music’s influence on emotion and character development (Feder & Feder, 1981)3.  Medieval hymns were sometimes considered curative via emotional catharsis, transmission of sacred values and morals, or even treatment for respiratory ailments (Strunk, 1965)4.  New rhythms, harmonies, and musical forms flourished in the Renaissance while physicians and musicians innovated new music applications to complement advances in human anatomy, physiology, and clinical practice (Davis & Gfeller, pp. 18-22).

“Throughout the development of civilization, the relationship between music and healing has complemented the theory of disease prevalent at the time” (Davis & Gfeller, p. 25).  When 18th century medicine evolved favorably into an empirical science, music continued to provide value as a preventative measure, a complementary treatment option, and an innovative tool for multidisciplinary efficacy.


Interestingly, our beloved Benjamin Franklin invented a glass harmonica around 1761, utilized in compositions by Wolfgang Mozart and in pseudo-treatments by “pre-psychologist” Franz Anton Mesmer (Gallo & Finger, 2000)5.  But even as early as 1789, the first American paper on music therapy was published; “Music Physically Considered” advocated music’s ability to regulate emotional states, but advised application only by a skilled and knowledgeable clinician (Heller, 1987)6.  An 1804 doctoral dissertation discussed music’s effects on the mind and body, which provide the potential to treat mental and physical conditions.  A second dissertation in 1806 described a technique of matching music to the patient’s current mood or behavioral state and judiciously adapting musical characteristics to shape their state in a desired direction (Davis & Gfeller, pp. 22-23).  Articles such as “Medical Powers of Music,” “Music as a Medicine,” “Music Among the deaf and Dumb,” and “Music in Its Relation to the Mind” continued to be printed in various music, medical, and psychiatric journals. However, it was not until 1918 that the first music therapy journal, Music and Health, was published (Davis & Gfeller, pp. 24-27).

Music curriculum complemented clinical settings early in the 19th century, beginning in 1832 with the Perkins School for the Blind and followed by the New York School for the Blind, the American Asylum for the Deaf, New York City’s psychiatric institution on Blackwell Island, and Utica State Hospital (Davis & Gfeller, pp. 24-26).  As music in healthcare became increasingly common, medical facilities hired music therapists to support the physical and mental rehabilitation of World War II veterans.  As music therapists met this surge in demand, they began to carefully examine their beliefs, procedures, and quantitative results.  It was quickly realized that formal training was necessary to prepare music therapists for the specialized application of music in medical and psychiatric interventions (Schneider, Unkefer, & Gaston, 1968).  Early university programs originated in the 1940s (American Music Therapy Association [AMTA], n.d.-a)7.  Today there are over 70 university programs across the United States providing bachelors, master’s, and doctoral degree (AMTA, n.d.-b)8.

Music Therapy

In 1903, the National Society of Musical Therapeutics was the first of several short-lived attempts to organize music therapy practice.  The National Association for Music Therapy, founded in 1950, was the first to write a constitution and bylaws, developed university and clinical training requirements, set research as a priority, and organized a music therapist registry (AMTA, n.d.-a).  The National Association began the Journal of Music Therapy (1964-present) and Music therapy Perspectives (1983-present), the premiere Music Therapy journals to this day.  The National Association merged with a similar American Association for Music Therapy in 1998 to form our current American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).  

AMTA is governed by a 15-member Board of Directors, with 14 standing committees such as Government Relations, Reimbursement, Research, International Relations, and Professional Advocacy (AMTA, n.d.-c)9.  The annual AMTA National Conference is held every fall.  AMTA also comprises seven regional chapters, which each hold their own regional conferences in the spring.  Music Therapy practice is governed by AMTA’s Scope of Practice, Standards of Clinical PracticeCode of Ethics, and Professional Competencies.

In order to earn the required MT-BC credential, one must complete at least a bachelor’s level degree with an AMTA-approved program, practice 1,200 hours in clinical internship, and pass the national board certification exam.  The Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) was incorporated in 1983.  CBMT is an independent agency fully-accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies to ensure that all Music Therapists – Board Certified (MT-BCs) possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to practice.

Today, Music Therapy is defined 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” (AMTA, n.d.-d)10.  Music Therapists serve increasingly diverse settings, currently including early childhoodspecial educationAutism Spectrum Disorderspain managementmedicinemental healthdepression and substance abusecrisis and traumamilitary populationscorrectional and forensics, and individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease.  

Music Therapists with the MT-BC credentials provide high-quality services while completing continuing education; conduct and publish research; provide professional presentations for regional, national, and international conferences; advocate for protection of the public and increased access to services through state task forces; and maintain an active media presence.

Interested in Music Therapy?  Make sure you find a qualified MT-BC!  Find an MT-BC in your area, or if you live in St. Petersburg, FL or the Tampa Bay Area, call (727) 350-7897 or write to

Show 10 footnotes

  1.  Levitin, D. J. (2008). The world in six songs:how the musical brain created human nature. New York, NY: Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
  2. Davis, W.B. & Gfeller, K.E. (2008). Music therapy: Historical perspective. In W. B. Davis, K. E. Gfeller, & M. H. Thaut (3rd ed.), An introduction to music therapy theory and practice (pp. 17-39). Silver Spring, MD: The American Music Therapy Association, Inc.
  3.  Feder, E. & Feder, B. (1981). The expressive arts therapies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  4.  Strunk, D. (1965). Source readings in music history. New York: W.W. Norton.
  5. Gallo, D.A. & Finger, S. (2000). The power of a musical instrument: Franklin, the Mozarts, Mesmer, and the glass armonica. History of Psychology, 3(4), 326-343.
  6.  Heller, G.N. (1987). Ideas, initiatives, and implementations: Music therapy in America, 1789-l848. Journal of Music Therapy, 24(1), 35-46.
  7.  American Music Therapy Association. (n.d.-a). History of music therapy. Retrieved July 28th, 2015 from
  8.  American Music Therapy Association. (n.d.-b). Professional Requirements for Music Therapists. Retrieved July 28th, 2015 from
  9.  American Music Therapy Association. (n.d.-c). About the American Music Therapy Association. Retrieved July 28th,
  10.  American Music Therapy Association. (n.d.-d). What is music therapy? Retrieved July 15th, 2015 from

“Hello, World!”

Rhythm & Reason Blog, Post By: James E. Riley, MM, MT-BC – (727) 350-7897,

“Hello, World!” 

Welcome to the Rhythm & Reason Blog.  Topics will often relate to Music Therapy St. Pete, LLC’s mission, vision, values, and philosophy.  This blog aims to educate and engage a wide audience, including local families and organizations, as well as Music Therapy students and professionals afar.  Music Therapy St. Pete, LLC will be a conduit of research, resources, stories, interviews, local events, and more, in order to build community and knowledge, in part, through original blog posts and mtstpete’s social media.  To launch, here is also an introduction to our Music Therapy and Music Lesson services.  We encourage you to be social; comment below!

Music Therapy Services

Music Therapy St. Pete, LLC uses rhythm and evidence-based music therapy interventions for non-musical, clinical reasons in order to promote Health and Humanity around St. Petersburg, Florida and the Tampa Bay area.  High quality services are provided by Board Certified Music Therapists across developmental, medical, mental health, physical, and end-of-life settings based on research, clinical expertise, and individualized treatment plans.

Whether you represent a healthcare or community organization, or you’re seeking services for you or loved ones, contact James E. Riley, President, at (727) 350-7897 or

Music Lessons: The Rhythm Studio

Music Therapy St. Pete, LLC’s “Rhythm Studio” provides multi-instrumental music lessons for friends of all ages and abilities.  Anyone can play!  Primary instruments include piano, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, voice, and ukulele.  Call today!  The Rhythm Studio aims to organize concerts featuring classical and modern musical styles.  If you are a local musician interested in volunteering, we seek your support for the students by playing in fun back-up band.

Say Hello!

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