The Power of Song: The Science of Music Therapy for Alcohol Recovery

Studies indicate that the longer someone stays in treatment for alcohol use disorder, the more likely they will engage in aftercare programs and experience better sobriety outcomes. Keeping a person engaged and motivated in treatment may involve creative and innovative methods, like music therapy. Music has neurobiological, social, and cultural effects. Music as therapy for alcohol recovery can influence and motivate you to make positive changes.1

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses music experiences to promote positive changes that lead to improved wellbeing.1 The American Music Therapy Association states specific outcomes of music therapy are to:2

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce muscle tension
  • Reduce agitation and irritability
  • Improve relationship skills
  • Enhance self-expression
  • Improve self-awareness
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Improve recognition of triggers
  • Improve use of learned coping skills
  • Increase motivation to change

Music therapy is an evidence-based modality used in a clinical setting to help individuals or groups reach therapeutic goals.3

Who Provides Music Therapy?

Music therapists are credentialed professionals who specialize in integrating music activities into treatment.3

Music therapists are board-certified and licensed in music therapy. They have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree in music therapy, and a minimum of 1,200 supervised clinical hours in a setting approved by the American Music Therapy Association. They must abide by standards of practice, a code of ethics, and set professional competencies.4

When choosing a music therapist to treat an alcohol use disorder, a therapist who works with an alcohol treatment center may be your best option. Treatment centers must have accreditation, licensure, and insurance. Choosing a therapist who works at or through an addiction treatment center ensures that your music therapist also complies with alcohol use disorder treatment standards.

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What Are the Benefits of Music Therapy?

Music therapy has been researched for medical and psychological uses. Music therapy can supplement treatments of people of all ages and backgrounds. Researchers have observed a number of benefits, including:5

  • Positive emotional changes
  • Relaxation
  • Decrease in feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, and anger
  • Increase in willingness to participate in treatment

Therapists use music as therapy for alcohol recovery.According to some researchers, listening to music can temporarily change brain function in a similar way that psychiatric medication, like as-needed antianxiety medication, does. Because music is accessible through your memories, you can potentially call on the feelings related to music even when not actively listening to it. 6

When testing which types of music created a calm experience, researchers found that Native American, Celtic, and Indian stringed instruments had the most significant impact. Sounds of nature, such as thunder and rain, were found relaxing.6

According to Stanford researchers, rhythmic music beats influence brainwave patterns. Listening to music at specific beats per minute can alter mental states. Slower beats cause brainwaves to slow down, making you feel calm and relaxed. Faster beats increase brainwaves, leading to alertness.7

Music causes changes in the chemicals in the brain in four different categories:8

  1. Releasing natural dopamine and neurochemicals, which are related to reward and pleasure
  2. Regulating the release of stress hormones like cortisol
  3. Releasing natural serotonin, which boosts immunity and mood
  4. Releasing oxytocin, which is associated with social affiliation

This research indicates that music therapy can, therefore, potentially play a role in treating psychiatric conditions. Intentional use of music in a therapeutic setting can change how you perceive pain, how you experience “reward” relating to pleasant experiences, and regulate your emotions. These factors are closely tied to alcohol use disorders.8

How Is Music Therapy Used for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Music reaches parts of the brain affected by alcohol and other substances. Music as therapy for alcohol recovery can produce effects in the brain similar to those that dopamine has when released.

For some, music can be intoxicating. For others, it can evoke emotion—it can make them feel sad, happy, angry, or nostalgic.9 Music associations can be created that are linked to hope, motivation, and recovery. Associations having to do with substance misuse may even be reworked in therapy to break musical triggers, such as associating Christmas carols with seasonal alcoholic beverages.

Music interventions used in treatment for alcohol use disorder include:1

  • Discussing song lyrics and how the words make you feel or how they apply to your life
  • Writing songs about your life, experiences, emotions, and even your alcohol use disorder
  • Listening to music and discussing emotions you feel, including how certain tones and tempos produce different reactions
  • Improvising with instruments as a way to express emotions and resolve negative emotions
  • Improvising vocally and lyrically to express emotion and release stress, anger, or frustration
  • Performing as a soloist or in a group, which can create a feeling of achievement and comradery
  • Participating in music-assisted relaxation, which includes several types of music that assist you in relaxing over a series of songs at varying tempos

Several studies prove the benefits of musical interventions, including: 10, 11, 12, 13

  • Analyzing lyrics—Analyzing song lyrics in a detox treatment environment led to higher problem recognition, treatment readiness, desire for help, and overall treatment motivation for those in detox.
  • Songwriting—Writing and composing in detox treatment programs was associated with improvements in treatment motivation and readiness for change among participants.
  • Music-assisted relaxation—Physical recovery appeared facilitated by music-assisted relaxation, which reduces stress responses especially in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Improvisation—Reduced the intensity and occurrence rate of anxiety reactions.
  • Progressive relaxation—Combined with music, progressive relaxation—a mindfulness exercise—helped decrease tension and body temperature associated with stress.

Music interventions generally supplement traditional treatment modalities, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), humanistic, psychodynamic, and neurobiological therapy.

Music therapy occurs in clinical environments, including treatment centers for substance use disorders, community mental health centers, residential programs, and outpatient mental health or alcohol treatment facilities.1

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How Is Music Therapy Used for Co-Occurring Disorders?

Music as therapy in alcohol recovery can also treat co-occurring disorders that are often seen in individuals with alcohol use disorder.

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and depressive symptoms are often associated with alcohol use disorder. Whether depression begins before or after alcohol misuse, it can become a challenge to overcome. Research indicates that music therapy can help reduce depressive symptoms. In combination with traditional treatment, music therapy has also shown to be more effective than conventional therapy alone at reducing depression and anxiety. Music therapy has also improved home, social, and work function for study participants14

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can co-occur with alcohol use disorder. Symptoms of PTSD include sleep problems, hypervigilance, depression, isolation, flashbacks, and low self-esteem. When studied, music therapy used to treat PTSD reduced anxiety, improved sleep, increased perception of self-worth, and reduced isolation.15

Sleep Disturbances

Whether you are currently using alcohol or have achieved long-term sobriety, alcohol can be related to sleep issues. Insomnia is a common complaint. Music as therapy for alcohol recovery treats sleep disturbances with positive results. Protocols include a sequence in which you listen to different types of music to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. The sequence may start with a song that is familiar and makes you feel safe. Next is a song to relieve tension, followed by a song that follows your breathing patterns that eventually induce sleep.16

Is Music Therapy Effective?

Studies show music therapy is associated with positive outcomes for individuals with alcohol use disorder and other substance use disorders, including:17

Music improves participant engagement in treatment. In a 7-week trial in a substance use treatment group, engagement was 75% when using music therapy. Participants reported it helped them feel like part of the group regardless of their age or substance of misuse, and almost all reported they would participate in music therapy again.18

If you, or someone you know, has an alcohol use disorder, call us at 800-948-8417 Who Answers? 24/7. Our treatment specialists can connect you with an addiction treatment program.


  1. Chen, X. J., Fachner, J. Ghetti, C. & Gold, C. (2017). Music therapy for people with substance use disorders. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 2017(3), CD012576.
  2. The American Music Therapy Association. (2021). Music Therapy Interventions in Trauma, Depression, & Substance Abuse: Selected References and Key Findings.
  3. Rafieyan, R., & Ries, R. (2007). A Description of the Use of Music Therapy in Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry. Psychiatry, 4(1), 47-52.
  4. American Music Therapy Association. (2021). Professional Requirements for Music Therapists.
  5. Aletraris, L., Paino, M., Edmond, M. B., Roman, P. M., & Bride, B. E. (2014, December 17). The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs. Journal of Addictions Nursing, 25(4), 190-196.
  6. University of Nevada at Reno. (2021). Releasing stress through the power of music.
  7. Saarman, E. (2006, May 31). Feeling the beat: Symposium explores the therapeutic effects of rhythmic music. Stanford University
  8. Hegde, S. (2017, May 01). Music therapy for mental disorder and mental health: the untapped potential of Indian classical music. BJPsych International, 14(2), 31-33.
  9. Koelsch, S. (2014, February 20). Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(3), 170-80.
  10. Silverman, M. J. (2015, February 19). Effects of Lyric Analysis Interventions on Treatment Motivation in Patients on a Detoxification Unit: A Randomized Effectiveness Study. Journal of Music Therapy, 52(1), 117-134.
  11. Silverman, M. J. Effects of Group Songwriting on Motivation and Readiness for Treatment on Patients in Detoxification: A Randomized Wait-List Effectiveness Study. Journal of Music Therapy, 49(4), 414-429.
  12. Brönnimann, R., Ehlert, U., Finkel, L., La Marca, R., Nater, U. M. & Thoma, M. V. (2013). The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response. PloS One, 8(8), e70156.
  13. Kim, Y. (2008, July 01). The Effect of Improvisation-Assisted Desensitization, and Music-Assisted Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Imagery on Reducing Pianists’ Music Performance Anxiety. Journal of Music Therapy, 45(2), 165-91.
  14. Aalbers, S., Chen, X., Crawford, M., Gold, C., Ket, J., Freeman, R. E., Fusar-Poli, L., Maratos, A., Spreen, M. & Vink, A. C. (2017, November 16). Music therapy for depression. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 11(11), CD004517.
  15. Landis-Shack, N., Heinz, A. J., & Bonn-Miller, M. O. (2017). Music Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress in Adults: A Theoretical Review. Psychomusicology, 27(4), 334-342.
  16. Loewy J. (2020, January 07). Music Therapy as a Potential Intervention for Sleep Improvement. Nature and Science of Sleep, 12, 1-9.
  17. Hohmann, L., Bradt, J., Stegemann, T., et al. (2017). Effects of music therapy and music-based interventions in the treatment of substance use disorders: A systemic review. PloS One, 12(11), e0187363.
  18. Baker, F. A., Dingle, G. A. & Gleadhill, L. (2009, May 29). Can music therapy engage patients in group cognitive behaviour therapy for substance abuse treatment? Drug and Alcohol Review, 27(2), 190-196.
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