Music Therapy vs. Music Medicine: What’s the difference?

Issue # 
November 8, 2023

More and more people are experiencing mental health issues. At the same time, they’re becoming increasingly interested in what all their options for treatment are, from pharmaceuticals to more holistic modalities. 

Among the many alternatives, there are treatments involving music, or what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) calls “music-based interventions.” 

The NIH points out that these music-based interventions are affordable, safe, and easily accessible. (It’s why we’re making it available at your literal fingertips.)

But “music” means many different things to different people, and, as one might expect, there are many different approaches to musical treatments in health care. In considering what’s available in this space, it is important to make a basic distinction between music medicine and music therapy, as these are the two most prominent types of musical treatment available today.

These might both be new terms for you. Or maybe you didn't know that they're not interchangeable. A key difference is that music therapy is typically provided by a board-certified music therapist. Just as a board-certified psychologist would lead someone through talk therapy, a music therapist guides someone through a music therapy session. This is directly parallel to talk therapy—there’s a therapeutic relationship, and the music therapist’s involvement is key.

With music medicine, on the other hand, there is more freedom in how it’s administered and who’s administering it. Music medicine can be self-administered at home without supervision, just like you might take a daily pill at home (hence the name, music medicine). Also, although music medicine can be administered or “prescribed” by a music therapist, it doesn’t have to be.  Think of it like an over-the-counter medicine.  

Accordingly, music medicine is very flexible. It can be taken at home, on a walk, in the car, at the office. Wherever you happen to be. 

In contrast, music therapy requires participation in dedicated sessions that have to be coordinated with the schedule of a certified therapist. 

Technology has transformed music medicine

In the US, music therapy was first defined and used in 1945 to treat veterans in psychiatric wards following WWII. Since then, music therapy has been very successful, expanding in scope and also in application. The problem is that there are only about 10,000 certified music therapists working in the US, which severely restricts access. Music medicine avoids this bottleneck by minimizing direct interaction with a therapist. Although it is still early days for music medicine, it is now growing even more rapidly, thanks to advances in mobile devices, music streaming apps (that’s us!), and telehealth.

As music medicine grows, maximizing its effectiveness involves building on the success of music therapy, but also recognizing how music medicine is different. For example, as alluded to above, a major difference is that music therapy requires a therapist. In some cases, a therapist and a patient really connect, easing interaction and supporting the expectation that therapy is working, which can then affect how treatment actually turns out. 

While this kind of interpersonal boost can be important, it isn’t really about the music itself. In a music medicine approach, where interaction with a therapist is more limited, all that’s left is the music, which must therefore be crafted with special care. This is what we do at Spiritune, combining best practices from music therapy with the latest research on music’s effects from neuroscience compositions that are well-aligned with specific therapeutic goals to support your mental health and wellbeing. 

Does music medicine work, though? Yes! In fact, the evidence suggests that, in many cases, it works just as well if not better than more traditional forms of music therapy, even without the positive interactions that can come from good rapport between a patient and their therapist . Encouragingly for the future of music-based interventions, as research continues to grow, it looks like what’s most important is the music itself. At Spiritune, we are focused on “doing it right” and making music medicine in the best possible way and growing its potential to radically expand access and improve health.

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