It has been described as “the first and only recovery orchestra in the world.” Comprising about 14 members, the New Note Orchestra in the English seaside town of Brighton helps recovering addicts stay clean through music.
The orchestra composes their own music and holds public concerts throughout the year. Singing in the orchestra brought Jo Barnett – a recovering alcoholic – back to life; as she described collaborating with the orchestra, “Doing this is like becoming awake.”
And Dan Blomfield – also a recovering alcoholic – credits the orchestra with saving his life. Told by doctors that he might never make it to the age of 40 if he continued “drinking to excess,” Blomfield is now healthy and clean, and he celebrated his 40th birthday this past May.
Music is a powerful force. But, how can music help you recover from drug addiction?
First, let us better understand what music therapy is and what it looks like in the context of drug rehab. Then, we will consider what scientific research has to say about how music therapy can help those recovering from drug addiction.
Music Therapy: What It is and What it Looks Like
When a trained musical therapist engages with individuals to listen to, create, discuss, or perform music “within a therapeutic relationship,” this is considered music therapy.
Music therapists are trained not only in music but also in medicine and psychology so that they can create therapy plans for patients having dementia, movement disorders, asthma, and substance abuse disorders.
Because music therapy is tailored to each individual, there is no standard program for individuals recovering from addiction. Music therapy sessions meet an individual’s current needs and then adapt over time in response to the individual’s “needs and readiness.” Music therapy sessions may be conducted one-on-one, in groups, or in entire communities.
A music therapy program provided at an “inpatient treatment facility” in Ohio serves as an example of what music therapy within the setting of drug rehab might look like.
At the facility, 16 women received “nine, twice-weekly 60- to 90-minute music therapy sessions.” For each session, the women gathered in a large room to form a circle around musical instruments, including triangles, drums, and a xylophone.
Pre-recorded music was also played at sessions. Participants could sing, perform on the musical instruments, and play musical games. As musical therapist Amy Dunlap describes these sessions, “A typical group consisted of an assessment check-in, a small ‘warm up’ intervention, two substantial, interactive interventions, music-assisted relaxation, a brief closing statement or check-out, before ending with group singing.” The general aims of these sessions were to help individuals express themselves, lessen anxiety, and improve “coping skills and communication.”
Research on Music Therapy for Drug Addiction
Music therapy has been used as part of addiction treatment since around the 1970s. However, there is relatively little research on how it helps those recovering from addiction.
More studies on music therapy and drug addiction are needed. Here is what we know so far and what we are learning from current research on the benefits of music therapy for those in recovery:
What We Know so Far:
- Neuroimaging studies from the 1980s showed that listening to music produces endorphins or the chemicals manufactured by the body that induce “pain relief and a sense of well-being.”
- A study by Winkelman in 2003 showed that drumming can induce positive feelings and even provide “emotional healing” for those in recovery.
- In 2005, Cevasco and others demonstrated that music therapy for women in drug rehab lessened their feelings of “depression, stress, anxiety, and anger.”
- And a neuroimaging study published the same year found that listening to music “modulates activity” in the areas of the brain that get hijacked by drugs of abuse, leading to addiction.
- Individuals in rehab in a study by Baker and others in 2007 reported that music therapy allowed them to explore their emotions “without the need for substance use.”
- A 2009 study discovered that music therapy helped those recovering feel more willing to engage in rehab.
- And Amy Dunlap’s study in 2017 that was discussed above met with positive results; the women with whom Dunlap worked reported that “music therapy improved their overall treatment experience [. . .] and personal recovery process.”
Future Avenues of Research:
- Kim and others in 2018 studied the effects of Korean music on rats that had been trained to inject themselves with morphine. Music therapy appeared to reduce “morphine-seeking behavior” as well as anxiety in the rats that were studied.
Scientific research is uncertain about how well music works when used as an adjunct to drug rehabilitation. However, as is evident from the stories shared above, many individuals have been able to get clean and stay clean with the help of music.
If you are or someone you know is battling addiction, help is just a phone call away.