What Is Music Therapy for Aging Adults?


Music can ignite your emotions, get your fingers tapping, and play like a broken record in your mind. It’s been part of the human experience since the beginning, and now it’s at the center of a science-backed therapy. 

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Music therapy is a growing field that helps people manage emotions, strengthen coping skills, and stimulate cognitive activity. It’s used to help people with several types of mental and physical health conditions. Perhaps the most remarkable results come from people in memory care, where music can connect with a person trapped in the depths of dementia. 

This guide reviews the basics about music therapy, how it works, insurance coverage, and what music therapy might look like for aging adults. 

What is Music Therapy?  

Music therapy is a holistic type of treatment that involves the mind, body, emotions, and behaviors. It's appropriate for all ages and cognitive abilities. Music can also:

  • Provide stimulation for physical activity and exercise.
  • Elevate a person's mood when they feel depressed.
  • Create a calming atmosphere for stress relief.
  • Trigger emotions tied to memories. 
  • Act as a fun distraction during a challenging or boring activity.

Music therapists use this holistic influence to help people reach their therapeutic goals. And no musical talent is required for music therapy. A person can benefit from music therapy just by being in its presence.

Therapy activities are either creative or receptive. One session may focus on drumming or creating musical sounds as an expression. A different session might involve listening to specific music and reflecting on their reactions. Depending on what a person needs most, both approaches can be therapeutic.

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How Does Music Therapy Help Aging Adults? 

Music therapy is a versatile treatment that adds both pleasure and improved functioning to an older person’s life. The following list explains how music therapy can be used and a few  potential drawbacks of using this treatment approach.


Research has shown that music can increase a person's quality of life, particularly in group living arrangements like nursing homes. Listening to enjoyable music is one way to boost a person's mood.

But when it's music that others also recognize and enjoy, listening can also become a social experience. Developing relationships around shared interests can replace loneliness with feelings of belonging. 

Improving medical outcomes

Older adults tend to have more physical ailments as they age. Music therapy in some cases can improve medical outcomes, especially with uncomfortable or challenging situations.

Music itself can provide motivation when doing something difficult, like physical therapy. It can also calm anxiety during chemotherapy or before medical procedures. Music can also diminish the perception of pain, making it more tolerable.


Music therapy can cut through the clouds of dementia in ways other treatment methods can't. Why? Because it taps straight into a person's emotions. Memory care activities that include music therapy can reignite a person’s emotional self.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky found that playing a few minutes of music could trigger a nearly 20-minute emotional reaction in people who otherwise didn't communicate much, if at all. 

Another study done at Walden University found that music helped reduce agitation and anxiety for mildly impaired adults. The music promoted better cognitive functioning and helped with behavior changes. 

Meaning-making and nostalgia 

Meaning is essential throughout a person's life. But as a person ages, there is more life to look back on than there is ahead of them. That's why reconnecting with memories and looking at one's life with fresh eyes matters so much at an older age. Finding meaning helps a person feel at peace and with their life rather than feeling a sense of despair or hopelessness. 

Music can quickly hook a person into a sense of nostalgia. And music therapy can use particular songs to help a person transport themselves back in time. Through memories, they view their previous self at various ages and reconnect with their self-identity.

Each time a person revisits these memories, they do it from a later point in their life. They view their past experiences from a somewhat different perspective every time. 

Depending on what's happening in a person's life currently, this recollection may create mixed feelings. But nostalgia is generally a good experience for people in music therapy.

Drawbacks of music therapy for aging adults 

Music therapy has a lot of upsides, but an individual’s reactions to an activity are unpredictable. Here are two key issues therapists will watch for.

Triggering unwanted memories

One of the benefits of music therapy is its ability to trigger memories, but this can also be a downside.

If music unintentionally stirs up uncomfortable memories for someone, they may be unprepared to cope with them. This could be especially difficult for a person with dementia or communication difficulties.

Overstimulation and stress

Because some music can have a motivating or stimulating effect, it may be too much to handle at times.

For a person who struggles to cope with emotions, an overload of feelings can be stressful. Like a young child that becomes too excited, overstimulation for an older adult with emotional difficulties can be upsetting.

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Is Music Therapy Covered by Insurance? 

There's no doubt that music can be beneficial in many situations. However, music therapy is narrower in scope than casual or recreational enjoyment. Under specific circumstances, a range of insurance plans covers music therapy.  

Music therapy and art therapy are two examples of complementary therapies, which are meant to go along with primary forms of treatment. Each company may have its own standards for covering these additional treatments. Since it is still a new and expanding field, there's still variance in how companies cover music therapy.

Medicare currently reimburses for creative therapy as part of partial hospitalization programs for mental health. In addition, many large private companies have covered music therapy for adults. As more clinicians seek coverage for their services, more companies have been paying reliably for services.

Licensed practitioners with credentials 

In general, a person with more credentials and training is more likely to be covered by insurance. For example, a psychologist who also provides music therapy has a better chance of being covered by some companies. 

Therapy must be considered medically necessary 

Insurance reimbursements often require some justification that a treatment is medically necessary before they will pay for it. In other words, they won't pay for just any type of service you want to call therapy.

A referral from a healthcare professional with high-level credentials (like an M.D.) can often be enough to satisfy these requirements. But each company is different, so it's important to check. Working with an experienced therapist can help you move through this process.

Music Therapy Activity Ideas for Seniors 

Are you considering music therapy for yourself or a loved one, or are you curious what it might look like? Here are some examples of how music therapists might do activities with an individual or a group.

While doing them at home for fun isn't the same as music therapy directed by a professional, these activities can create enjoyment for everyone involved. 

Play music when everyone is together

People can be near each other with the ability to socialize while familiar music plays in the background.

This can be done when serving food or when others expect to gather for social time. It provides a pleasant distraction and can be a conversation starter.

Drum circles

Drum circles allow people with communication challenges to express themselves and participate with a group.

The drumming taps into a person's instinct to create and follow rhythms. This activity is also appropriate for people with hearing impairment because they can experience both vibrations and sound.

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Create an exercise playlist

Whether someone needs to do physical therapy or stay more active, seniors can use music to keep them motivated.

They should choose energetic music they like with enough variety to keep them interested. Consider creating a playlist that can grow and change over time.

Attend an outdoor concert or musical show

Get the benefits of nature and music in one event by attending an outdoor concert.

If the event is in a person's local community, it can be a social activity as well. Many concerts and shows are put on by community members and local volunteers, often at low or no cost.

Have a sing-along

A sing-along is something many people have done at various ages, especially around holidays.

Consider caroling at Christmas or singing patriotic songs for Memorial Day and Independence Day. And just for fun, pick oldies music from a particular era or popular artist. Encourage dance moves for an exercise boost.

Cultural experience

People grow up with musical traditions in their family, and not just around the holidays.

Culturally traditional music can spark meaningful memories and prompt people to share stories. This music can also be enjoyable for those who don't share those experiences.

Individual music therapy sessions

Individual music therapy sessions can be helpful for seniors with dementia. Therapy sessions can calm anxiety, stimulate memories, and provide comfort. A trained therapist leads individuals through these activities and stays prepared for emotional reactions. It can be challenging to know how a person may emotionally react to certain kinds of music.

Therapists can determine the most appropriate types of therapy activities, provide guidance, and evaluate a person's progress.

Despite the unknowns, music therapy can also stimulate some remarkable communication from individuals who may otherwise be nonverbal or challenging to connect with. Because the part of the brain that responds to music is so primal, it reacts instinctually and can trigger other functionality for brief periods. 

Tapping Into the Mind and Body With Music Therapy

If you aren’t familiar with music therapy, you aren’t alone. It’s still a growing field, but it has developed innovative and effective ways to help with various health conditions.

Music connects people through instinct and emotion. And when used in a therapeutic way for aging adults, music can spark human emotion and heal the soul.  

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