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Where Did Music Therapy Come From?

According to Ronald Benezon, “The use of music to influence the human body was first mentioned in writing in Egyptian medical papyri dating back to 1500 BCE.” Isn’t this wild? While music therapy was not a legitimate field at this time, music was being used to help individuals in many ways.


This blog will go over the evolution of music therapy from:

  • Biblical Mentions

  • Ancient Greek Philosophers

  • Indigenous Cultures

  • The Middle Ages and Renaissance

  • Modern Days

  • Where We Are Today

Biblical Mentions

Music is mentioned in the bible as having a therapeutic purpose. At the time when King Saul was being tormented by an evil spirit, it is mentioned in 1 Samuel 16:14-16, 21-23: “‘It’s an evil spirit from God that’s frightening you,’ Saul’s officials told him. ‘Your Majesty, let us go and look for someone who is good at playing the harp. He can play for you whenever the evil spirit from God bothers you, and you’ll feel better.” David began playing his harp for King Saul, and the evil spirit would go away.


Ancient Greek Philosophers


Ancient greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras had their own ideas on music as a form of homeopathy. While all three men believed in music’s powers, they all had a different interpretation of those powers. Pythagoras believed that music had a very specific set of ways to impact the body and soul, which came from law and order. Plato on the other hand, felt that music could create a whole personality shift or rebalancing for an individual. Aristotle felt similarly to Plato, as he felt that music was capable of relieving our negative emotions, and emotions and personality go hand in hand.



Plato and Aristotle used their similar views on music to identify four ends of music: moving/imitating emotions, giving pleasure, disposing toward moral virtue, and fostering intellectual advancement.

Indigenous Cultures

In many cultures, music is believed to have healing powers. There were songs that people believed connected the earth with the preternatural. Healing rituals were common, and some of the music we know today came from these cultures. In some cultures, Shamans were called “medicine men” and would heal those who came to them with a combination of herbs and music. It was said that herbs alone held no power, but that the combination with the music is what gave it the power to heal.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

During the Middle Ages, there was a shift in the idea of music as medicine. Where once Ancient Greeks thought that music had therapeutic powers, people started to disagree with this theory. Since religion was growing rapidly at this time, religious leaders such as St. Basil developed his own approach with music. He believed that music impacts emotions and could make worshipers more faithful, spiritual, and peaceful. Music was used as an addition to religious rituals for this reason.


This was also a time when mental illnesses were thought to be a sin, and a punishment from the devil. Music was used to try and “cure” these mental illnesses. This same idea continued on during the Renaissance, but music theorist Zarlino thought that music could be used to treat any and all of the following:hearing loss, mental illnesses, pain, depression, mania and the plague.



Modern Days

After the first and second World Wars, many soldiers experienced PTSD. Musicians were sent to battlefields and hospitals to play music for them, in an attempt to heal. After interacting with music, soldiers noticed a decrease in their symptoms. Their overall mental health improved. It was then noted that using music as a form of therapy could indeed be a real profession, and there should be educational systems put into place to create that profession. College programs began to slowly develop. There are now 70 colleges and universities within the United States alone that have approved music therapy programs.

Over the course of the 20th century, music therapy began to take the world by storm, specifically in the United States. Eva Augusta Vescelius worked to establish the National Society of Music Therapeutics in 1903. Then in 1950, the National Association of Music Therapy (NAMT) was created by Isa Maud Ilsen. In 1971 came The American Association of Music Therapy (AAMT). In 1983, The Certification Board of Music Therapists was created so that in order to be a music therapist, one had to complete and pass their certification exam after graduating from their designated programs. Only then, could those individuals work as music therapists (MT-BC’s). Eventually in 1998, NAMT and AAMT joined together to become the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). This is the main music therapy organization today, and the one that is most commonly known.


So, where are we today?

Music therapy has expanded, with the establishment of the and The World Federation of Music Therapy (1975) and The International Association for Music and Medicine (2010). Music therapy is most commonly known in countries such as The United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Canada, but is rapidly growing in other countries as well.


As you can see, the idea of music as a form of medicine has been around for centuries, but has only begun to take shape as an accredited form of practice in the 1900s. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about music therapy, please refer them to The American Music Therapy Association, as well as Three Rivers Music Therapy.

Written by Cara Jernigan on April 20. 2021.

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