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  • Writer's pictureKatie Paulus

Music Therapy, Music Thanatology, and Sound Healing- What's the Difference?





You don’t need to be a music therapist to know that music is therapeutic. In fact, most of us already use music in a variety of ways that help us feel good (or at least feel better than we did). Perhaps you listened to some Adele songs while eating ice cream and sobbing on the couch after your last break-up. You might have felt the liberation of self-expression while jamming with friends in your garage band when you were 16. Maybe you even benefited from the structure and discipline of playing in your school’s orchestra. That one fast-paced hip-hop song might have pushed you through the last stretch of your 5k run. So, we already know that we can use music in a variety of ways to benefit us in a variety of ways; in fact, humans have known this for millennia. 

With this knowledge, many different kinds of music and sound-based practices have arisen over time. Some have roots in ancient practices, and most, if not all, have merit. As alternative therapies rise in popularity and become more widely available, it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between similar-sounding practices, and even more difficult to decide which might be most beneficial for you or your loved one. These are some common music and sound-based practices, what makes them unique, and who they might suit the best.

Music Thanatology


Music Thanatologists specialize in music for people in end of life care. As the Music-Thanatology Association International states, "music-thanatology is not intended to entertain or distract the patient." Music thanatologists are trained to play music that eases the suffering of dying people. The music they play may soothe feelings of anxiety around dying, or may even help ease physical symptoms, such as an elevated heart rate or labored breathing. They learn to improvise and play things according to the patient's physical or emotional response. The sessions are intended to help patients "enter into the unbinding process of letting go in his or her own very personal way" (2). This can help the patient feel relaxed and prepared for death. Though these sessions can occur long before the patient's final day, sometimes the music-thanatologists are in the room as the patient dies, using the music to guide them to a peaceful, comfortable death.

This specialty is often thought of as a type of "music therapy," and while it does have therapeutic elements, it is a unique, highly specialized field that does not have long-term treatment goals like music therapy does. The certification process is different to music therapy since it does not function as a clinical treatment. There is only one school in the United States that "officially" teaches music thanatology (3). However, "Music thanatologist" is not a protected title, so legally speaking, there are no official educational requirements. There is a unified international organization that grants certifications for music thanatologists which sets a strict code of ethics and standards for practice, and despite its spiritual connotations, it is a scientifically and medically supported practice.

Sound Healing


Sound healing uses sounds from various simplistic instruments, such as singing bowls, tuning forks, gongs, bells, chimes, etc. The types of instruments used in sound healing typically emit pure tones that are then layered in different ways. This is done because of the belief that sound waves at certain frequencies can resonate with the energy waves of our bodies (5, 6), so well-trained sound healers will often tailor the instruments and tones used in a session to help a client’s specific problems. (If it’s hard to picture it, here’s a sound healing session in action.)

Historically, sound healing is a spiritual practice, with roots in Hinduism and Buddhism respectively. Many sound healers are still trained on Chakra* alignment today, even if they do not practice Hinduism or Buddhism, because it aids in mindfulness meditation practices which focus on individual points of the body. It is not considered a medical practice, nor is it a regulated practice. However, it is recognized by many medical and mental health professionals for its benefits. (Yes, you can appreciate alternative and/or spiritual remedies and support peer-reviewed science and regulated, modern medicine.) To be clear, just because a practice is spiritual does not mean it has no merit. There are plenty of studies like this one which have found tangible mental and physical benefits to sound healing. 

How does someone become a sound healer?

There is no unified certification body for sound healing, and there is no government that endorses or protects sound healing legally (5). Because of this, a sound healing certification can be obtained from any person or institution that teaches the practice, though a certification is not required in order to practice. Though this does mean anyone seeking sound healing should do their research and thoroughly check the reviews of the practitioner, it does not mean that sound healing as a practice is not legitimate. Bear in mind that this is not a medical practice, and it is not intended to be, so there is little about the practice itself that needs to be regulated. As long as the business practices (which are regulated) are legitimate, it is harmless to try.

What is sound healing best for?

Sound healing is best suited for relieving stress, tension, and anxiety, and for people who like to implement spiritual practices for their general wellbeing, regardless of religious affiliation. Sound healing can be integrated into a holistic approach to health, balanced with medically-supported treatments.

Music Therapy


Music Therapists use music in various forms for therapeutic goals. They may work one-on-one or in groups like traditional therapists. While sometimes music therapy can involve listening to music, like in music thanatology or sound healing, music therapists often encourage active participation in making music. Depending on the therapeutic goals, it may be more beneficial for patients to sing, write lyrics, or play an instrument. The types of therapeutic goals in Music Therapy vary; outcomes can be physical, such as developing motor skills, or mental, such as soothing anxiety. There can also be developmental, cognitive, and behavioral benefits (4). Because of this, music therapists work with a large variety of patients. Music therapy is an evidence-based, medically recognized field. Music therapists cannot diagnose patients or prescribe medication, but medical professionals often refer patients to their services. The British National Health Service aptly refers to it as an "Allied Health Service," on a list which also includes physiotherapists, radiographers, dieticians, and paramedics.

Certification Process

Music Therapists in the United States have a unified, official board that is recognized by several state governments. "Music Therapist" is a protected title under several state governments; this means only individuals who have been board-certified by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) may call themselves music therapists in a professional capacity. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) sets rigorous standards and a strict code of ethics for prospective music therapists. The CBMT requires candidates to complete a minimum of a Bachelor's degree or equivalency program from an AMTA-approved music therapy program, 1200 clinical hours, and the CBMT examination to receive board-certification. In all fields, not just music therapy, board-certification is a notoriously rigorous process intended to provide a gold-standard of the practice.

What is music therapy best for?

Music therapy can serve a variety of needs for a variety of people. It is a great option for emotional, physical, and cognitive benefits, and does not require musical skill to participate. However, because of this, if you are looking for a "jam session" or to develop music-specific skills, you may want to consider music lessons or community music groups instead.

Is one musical practice better than the others?


To put it shortly, no. All of the musical practices outlined here are valid for different reasons, and each has a place in holistic care, from the beginning to the end of life. Though the clientele they appeal to certainly overlap, each practice has its own desired outcomes and its own methods, so there is no reason why you cannot try more than one music-based practice.

If you're interested in music therapy or lessons, click here to learn more about the services Blooming Bridge offers. If you're interested in trying sound healing or have a loved one in hospice who may benefit from a music thanatologist, you may be surprised at how commonly available they are, so check for services near you.

Notes

*Chakras are originally based on the ancient beliefs of Hindu tantra, but the concept of Chakras has been adapted and redefined numerous times into other faiths, such as Buddhism, modern Hindu practice, and even Western culture and New Age irreligious spirituality. Each adaptation redefines what the Chakras are exactly, but the most commonly known adaptation defines 7 chakras, spanning from the base of your spine to the top of your head, which you can read more about here.

References

1. Goldsby TL, Goldsby ME, McWalters M, Mills PJ. Effects of Singing Bowl Sound Meditation on Mood, Tension, and Well-being: An Observational Study. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine. 2017;22(3):401-406. doi:10.1177/2156587216668109

2. Music-Thanatology Association International, 29 Sept. 2023, www.mtai.org/.

3. Riddle, Katia. “Thanatologists Are Trying to Recruit a New Generation of People to the Field.” Morning Edition, NPR, 31 May 2023.

4. “Scope of Music Therapy Practice.” American Music Therapy Association, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) and the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT), 2015, www.musictherapy.org/about/scope_of_music_therapy_practice/.


6. “What Is Sound Healing.” Sound Healing Academy, www.academyofsoundhealing.com/what-is-sound-healing. Accessed 11 Feb. 2024.




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