Music Therapy In Addiction Treatment

Published On: August 16, 2023

When someone is suffering from addiction, they haven’t simply picked up a bad habit or lost control of themselves. Addiction or Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is a brain disease [1] that affects countless people across the globe, and its development is contingent on many factors.

Unbeknown to many, one of these factors is genetics. Scientists have discovered that some individuals carry a genetic trait that makes them more susceptible to addictive disorders, particularly if someone in their immediate family has a history of substance abuse.

However, it’s well known that addiction is caused by a complex interplay of genetic, biological, social, and environmental stressors.

A person with clasped hands, thinking

Someone might have been exposed to addictive substances at a young age: wreaking havoc on their developing brain. Another might have suffered a traumatic event such as abuse or an injury: causing them to self-medicate using drugs and alcohol.

Whatever the reason behind their SUD, sufferers are unable to quit easily because the reward pathways in their brains have been rewired.

Through completely natural learning processes, our brains change nerve pathways to notice, focus on, desire, and seek out substances at the cost of everything else [2].

Essentially, victims of SUD are unable to derive a dopamine response to the things that usually please them; such as friends, family, and hobbies they once enjoyed. Instead, their brain focuses all its attention on ensuring they have a continuous supply of drugs or alcohol.

Why is Treating Addiction Important?

A man sitting with a female therapist who is holding a clipboard

With this in mind, what started as a choice (drinking or drug-taking recreationally) becomes a prison.

As such, it’s impossible to just hope an addiction will get better over time: sufferers must seek support from a specialised drug and alcohol rehab: preferably as an inpatient, to reduce the chance of relapse.

To optimise their chances of lifelong sobriety, patients receiving rehab treatment undertake a variety of personalised treatments [3].

After completing detox and ridding their body of toxins, they’ll start a bespoke recovery programme consisting of behavioural interventions, counselling, and alternative methods such as music therapy.

In this article, we’ll break down the ground-breaking research surrounding music therapy and how it can help addicted individuals heal.

Music Therapy and its Origins

girl lead on floor with headphones on

In the ever-expanding realm of addiction treatment, several therapies aren’t considered primary strategies: and music therapy is one of them.

As the name suggests, this form of therapy uses the mood-lifting, healing properties of music to help people improve their psychological health.

During workshops, participants have the chance to write songs, make music, dance, sing, or discuss their favourite tunes with peers.

When discussing the origins of music therapy, we could technically go back as far as 2,000 years ago to ancient Greece, but that would take far too long.

What’s important to note is that music has been used therapeutically for centuries, either as a form of self-soothing or a way to communicate emotionally with others.

However, it’s only in recent years that music therapy and other alternative methods have entered the clinical sphere to treat mental disorders.

While still considered in its infancy, research on the power of music when treating those with depression or anxiety has made huge leaps.

For example, one 2015 study [4] discovered that when we listen to sad music, the hormone prolactin is produced. Prolactin produces feelings of tranquillity and calmness and emits soothing effects for those listening.

This is only one example of how beneficial this type of therapy can be, and to reflect this, there are many types of music therapy that health professionals recommend.

Some of the most popular types include:

  • Community music therapy: Similar to other types of group therapy, this format sees members of a local community come together and practice music. This can be in the form of choirs, dance groups, or instrumental practices, depending on the needs of each group.
  • Creative music therapy: This is an improvisation-based practice used to enhance self-expression and improve self-confidence. It involves an individual playing one instrument while their therapist accompanies them with another. Creative expression is often what draws people to music therapy, as it can quickly become a new hobby that they carry with them for years to come.
  • Benenzon music therapy: Grounded in psychotherapeutic methods, this style of music therapy focuses on making music and helping patients regain a sense of identity. During sessions, participants are encouraged to recreate sounds, either through vocal or instrumental work, that reflect their internal emotions.
  • Cognitive behavioural music therapy (CBMT): It might seem strange to combine cognitive-behavioural methods with music therapy, but this style uses CBT principles to modify or encourage desired behaviours. Unlike methods that use improvisation, CBMT is a structured process that involves listening to, producing, or analysing music in a way that honours a formal treatment programme.

Music Therapy in Addiction Treatment

woman listening to music through headphones

Part of the reason why music therapy [5] is gaining popularity in clinical settings is because it can be used in various contexts.

When it comes to treating addiction, music therapy can be applied in outpatient programmes, inpatient settings, and within the community as group workshops.

Due to the universal nature of music, this type of therapy has the power to help almost everyone struggling with addiction.

There aren’t many people out there who don’t already take comfort in music, whether they’re battling substance addiction or not.

Vocal or instrumental sounds are linked to the production of various emotional states, with different genres having the power to make people happy, sad, introspective, or mindful.

Many people in recovery utilise music as a healing tool outside of their treatment programmes.

Music can be used at the end of a long day to help someone unwind or in moments of high stress when relapse is threatening. It can also help battle cravings by providing a distraction in moments of listlessness.

However, it’s also important to note that while considered complementary therapy, music therapy for addiction is a structured treatment with various goals [6].

In rehabilitation programmes, those facilitating music therapy are licensed therapists with a wealth of experience. The job of a music therapist is to evaluate the specific needs of the individual and ensure their musical sessions dovetail with other forms of treatment they’re receiving.

For example, many victims of addiction struggle with co-occurring disorders or mental health conditions occurring separately from their substance abuse.

Oftentimes, these comorbidities come in the form of depression, anxiety, OCD, or PTSD. A music therapist will personalise workshops to help their patient cope with whichever psychological symptoms they’re experiencing.

After the music therapist has consulted with their patient and built an understanding of their preferences, they’ll communicate with the rest of their treatment team.

Together, a team of addiction treatment specialists can design a bespoke plan that integrates psychotherapies, behavioural interventions, music therapy, and any other holistic methods.

When applied under the direction of a professional, and once it’s been integrated into a treatment plan, music therapy has specific goals.

These goals will depend on the additional challenges encountered by the patient, their unique substance use disorder, and their musical preferences.

woman jogging and wearing earphones

Some of these include:

  • Helping the patient adjust to the demands of addiction recovery and providing comfort during times of stress. For instance, someone confronting traumatic memories as part of their addiction treatment can use music therapy to decompress after a challenging therapy session.
  • Enhancing someone’s communication skills and social functioning by getting them involved in communal music therapy. During group sessions, patients can connect with others who have similar music tastes and are finding solace in having music present in their addiction recovery.
  • It is using music to develop coping strategies [7] such as self-soothing, mindfulness, and relaxation. This can be integral to managing cravings and other relapse triggers.
  • Exploring and unlocking inner emotions relating to self-esteem and motivation. Oftentimes, victims of SUD experience a lapse in self-esteem, and music can be a great way to help bring back their sense of self.

What are the Benefits of Music Therapy for Addiction?

keyboard and music sheet

Even before entering addiction treatment, music is an important part of daily life for most people and is present at some point in their routines.

As such, it’s incredibly versatile when implemented alongside other treatments.

While music therapy isn’t the clinical answer to treating addiction, especially when used alone, it has a range of psychological and even physical benefits.

Just some of these include:

1. Patients Feel Less Overwhelmed

Making the monumental decision to enter addiction treatment can be scary and can come with a lot of uncertainty. Especially during the early stages of recovery, many people worry about how they’re going to live comfortably without an addictive substance.

Naturally, this causes patients to feel overwhelmed and even question the treatment process.

In these early stages, music therapy can help individuals put their difficult feelings into perspective: giving them a creative outlet to explore contradictory emotions.

Even just listening to music during detox can help combat psychological withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and low mood: which are common feelings when beginning treatment [8].

2. Improved Physical Health

While many of music therapy’s benefits are psychological, there are some physical benefits, too, especially when movements such as dance are incorporated into sessions.

Dancing to our favourite tunes is a great form of low-intensity cardio, and anything that gets the heart pumping will increase our dopamine production. After all, a healthy body goes a long way towards achieving a healthy mind.

Using dance during music therapy for addiction encourages patients to develop positive changes in their life, namely through exercise.

After leaving their rehab programme, graduates need to have some healthy habits established, as this can fight off relapse and help them build a routine.

3. Music Therapy Addresses Co-Occurring Disorders

As we’ve already mentioned, many people suffering from addiction enter treatment under a dual diagnosis: meaning that they also suffer from anxiety, depression, or another form of mental illness.

When combined with medication or behavioural interventions, music therapy helps those with comorbidities manage difficult emotions.

For patients experiencing depression, practising or listening to music can be a useful tool to help combat low mood.

Engaging with music releases dopamine: the hormone responsible for making us feel good, and endorphins: hormones that can relieve stress.

Therefore, types of music therapy like CBMT can retrain the brain’s reward system to seek sources of dopamine outside of substance use.

Another common comorbidity that can underly addiction is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many music-based activities can help people cope with symptoms.

The creative process of making music can be a more enjoyable way of exploring painful emotions, allowing PTSD sufferers to work through difficult memories without speaking about them directly.

Another helpful activity is lyric analysis, which involves patients taking their favourite songs and deriving new meanings from their verses.

If it suits the patient, music therapists often encourage them to create alternative lyrics that align with their own experiences: be it an addiction, mental health, personal issues, etc. This can be a great option for those who find traditional talking therapies challenging.

4. Improved Self-Confidence

Sadly, many people who are in recovery from addiction have suffered a lapse in self-esteem, with some losing sight of who they are without drugs or alcohol.

While medication-assisted treatments and behavioural interventions are effective, it’s often during holistic, creative therapies that patients re-discover their confidence.

Music therapies, especially when undertaken in group settings, offer the chance for patients to learn new skills and focus on something outside of their addiction recovery.

Developing new skills, such as learning to play an instrument, composing lyrics, or practising singing, causes people to experience behavioural activation: a significant mood enhancer.

When behavioural activation takes place, we acquire all the psychological benefits of learning something new; increased dopamine production, self-confidence, and a more positive mood.

In cases of addiction [9], it’s likely the sufferer hasn’t experienced behavioural activation in a while, as substance use may have robbed them of previous hobbies.

However, practising music with peers and doing this regularly can help reestablish a sense of control and remind them that they can learn new things despite obstacles.

While the idea of singing or playing instruments in front of new people can seem intimidating, this self-consciousness is a natural part of every new experience.

As they progress through sessions, patients come to realise that in a non-judgemental setting, they start to feel more confident and able to perform in front of and in collaboration with others.

What are its Limitations?

black and white image of close up of record player

Although the benefits of music therapy in addiction treatment are numerous, it’s by no means a one-size-fits-all method. Like all alternative methods, engaging with music therapeutically has its limitations, and these should be considered before integrating this therapy into a treatment regimen.

Firstly, it’s an inescapable fact that for many people in recovery, music was, at one stage, a large part of their substance-taking experience.

Whether they abuse substances before going to clubs, bars, at home among peers or by themselves, music is a common accompaniment to intoxication.

As such, some genres of music might increase the likelihood of relapse in some people, as it reminds them of substance-taking experiences and how these songs made them feel.

After all, music has been shown to strongly evoke memories, past events, and feelings. Therefore, immense caution and pre-assessments should be carried out before suggesting music therapy to someone in addiction recovery.

Another limiting factor is that, for the maximum benefits of music therapy to be achieved, it must be delivered by a trained music therapist: not just any addiction counsellor.

Some therapists without the specific qualifications needed for music therapy may attempt the practice but with more limited results.

To deliver this therapy as a clinical, evidence-based strategy, professionals need a bachelor’s degree in music therapy followed by a master’s to hone their clinical practice and therapeutic skills.

Other Forms of Alternative Therapy

Two women smiling close to a horse

Music therapy is just one branch of a wider treatment realm: often referred to as holistic therapy or alternative therapy.

Over the years, holistic therapies [10] have become increasingly popular in the treatment of addiction and are included in most rehab programmes today.

What’s more, due to the similar goals shared by many therapies, they can be used alongside one another to help patients achieve maximum results.

1. Drama Therapy

Performance-based therapies like drama therapy are easily intertwined with music therapy, and it’s easy to see how. Akin to music therapies, psychodrama methods [11] incorporate creative, playful practices to elicit positive emotions.

Developed in the 1930s to treat patients suffering from psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, drama therapy has since broadened its application to help those suffering from addiction.

It has been proven through multiple scientific studies that using theatrical movement, facial expressions, and dialogue can help people express their emotions.

Aside from helping people become more emotionally aware during recovery, drama therapy has a host of other benefits. Its nature as a group therapy method allows participants to interact with peers and help each other rehearse healthy behaviours.

Through dramatic projection, individuals can analyse their personal problems and relapse triggers: using a character or role to help them gain new perspectives,

2. Yoga and Mindfulness-Based Therapies

Mindfulness involves grounding in the present moment to achieve a heightened state of awareness: something which many of us struggle with whether we’re battling addiction or not. Although being mindful is something we can all strive towards, it’s especially useful when it comes to treating addiction.

Oftentimes, those in recovery have become disconnected from themselves, and mindfulness can help them tune in to their emotions and physical sensations.

Through activities such as meditation and yoga, patients can learn to slow down and respond to daily stresses in healthier ways.

Rather than reacting automatically to stress by seeking out substances, participants can make more conscious decisions and use positive ways of coping.

Yoga is often used alongside mindfulness therapies to help rebalance the brain and body following heavy substance use.

Moving our bodies in a relaxing way helps to relieve symptoms of anxiety while also building physical strength and stamina. These forms of mindful movement lend themselves to meditation practices, and by practising both, those in recovery can achieve greater mental stability over time.

3. Art Therapy

Artistic pursuits are another staple form of alternative therapy [12] for treating addiction, and many people find peace through drawing, painting, and sketching.

While music therapy may use lyrical expression to help people work through emotions, art therapy is a wordless practice.

Depending on the unique needs of their patient, art therapists can choose from a variety of self-expression tools and artistic mediums.

While some activities are unregulated and involve patients being able to freely explore emotions through painting, others are more structured.

For example, art therapists may guide their patients and encourage them to express a certain emotion, or they may encourage free-flow sessions.

Don’t Hesitate to Reach Out

Two women talking

If you think that music therapy could be beneficial for yourself or a loved one suffering from addiction, we can help you find the ideal treatment programme [13].

Many rehab clinics offer holistic therapy to support patients in their quest for recovery, and here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we’ve partnered with numerous clinics offering music therapy.

To start the process of recovery in a way that suits you and your preferences, don’t hesitate to reach out today.

Our expert team of non-judgemental professionals are always available to answer your call.

When you dial 0800 111 4108, you’ll be connected to our helpline [14] within minutes and can begin your free telephone assessment on the spot or arrange a convenient time.


[1] The Brain Disease Model of Addiction

[2] The Urge: Our History of Addiction

[3] Rehab 4 Alcoholism: Alcohol Addiction Treatment

[4] Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles

[5] Music Therapy in Mental Health for Illness Management and Recovery

[6] Music Therapy as a Tool for Recovery

[7] Music Therapy and Addictions

[8] Rehab 4 Alcoholism: Person-Centred Care in Addiction Treatment

[9] Substance Use Disorders: A Biopsychosocial Perspective

[10] The Biopsychosocial-Spiritual Approach Towards a Holistic Understanding and Treatment of Drug Addiction

[11] Current trends in the use of psychodrama and drama therapy in the treatment of mental disorders

[12] Rehab 4 Alcoholism: Art Therapy in Addiction Treatment

[13] Rehab 4 Alcoholism: Should I Choose Inpatient or Outpatient Rehab?

[14] Rehab 4 Alcoholism: Contact Us


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