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Music Therapy

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Helping youth find their voice

Noele Bird, MMT, MTA, FAMI, Beth Clark, MM, MT-BC, NM

Reprinted from "Treatment for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (1), p. 21-22

Music therapy is an allied health profession; that is, practitioners have formal training and credentials from professional associations. Music therapists use music in various ways to help clients—including youth with many different needs— make changes in their lives. We develop treatment programs based on the unique needs of our clients. Music therapy can stand alone as a form of treatment, or may complement other therapies. This article will discuss how music therapy helps youth who are dealing with mental health and addictions issues.

Music is a highly valued part of life for most young people, and for this reason we fi nd little resistance to music therapy treatment on the part of youth. Working through music allows us to draw on the creative strengths of our clients—strengths that might otherwise not be developed. Music can be used in creating a supportive space where youth feel safe.3 We help youth understand how music can assist them as they make changes in their lives. One youth may learn to cope with her anger through playing drums. Another youth may tell his story of recovery through writing a song.

Goals and tools

Music therapy is used with youth who have mental health issues including conduct disorder, attachment disorder and depression.4,5,6 Music therapists may see youth in schools,5 hospitals7 or within residential program settings.4 Common issues for youth in mental health treatment include self-expression and self-esteem, depression, aggression, socialization and coping with stress.8 Some of the tools used in music therapy are improvisation (improv), drumming, song writing, song choice, listening and analyzing the words to songs.

Music therapists who serve youth with addictions work toward goals that are similar to those for youth with mental illness. Focus is placed on self-awareness and expression, coping skills, communication and values. Through writing song lyrics, relaxation, performing music and improv, youth build trust, express feelings, improve self-esteem and learn to create healthy alternatives to a drug-use lifestyle.

Drumming with juvenile offenders

This program for youth in a correctional facility uses rhythm-based music therapy. Youth explore drumming improv, song creation and playing music from many cultures. Sessions provide ways to express anger and other emotions. Youth develop musical, leadership, communication and coping skills, as well as greater self-awareness.

Youth Living with Loss

This creative-arts based support program, which is offered within the North Shore Palliative Care Family Bereavement Program, is designed for youth who are dealing with the death of a family member or friend. These youth are at risk for substance use, school failure and mental health issues. The program helps youth build a support system with peers and adult mentors. The approach comes from the belief that youth who are grieving are in need of acceptance, understanding and connection.

Youth strengthen coping skills and explore ways to share their stories through music improv, relaxation, writing songs, journalling and visual art. Through these healing processes, youth are able to deal with feelings of guilt, anger and isolation. They can access this program for as long as they feel it is needed.

I’m Dangerous with Sound

This is a music performance project for high-risk youth. It is aimed at providing a creative and healthy alternative to a drug lifestyle, through the discovery of the creative self in music improv. It is based on the idea that one of the most helpful things in the recovery process is reducing harmful activities and offering alternatives.

The project is built on the talents and strengths of group members. Youth explore poetry, movement, theatre, song writing, drumming, and music improv to create an original public performance. Through an experience that involves creativity, self-expression, and peer support, participants develop social skills, teamwork, leadership skills, and self-confi dence. Youth in the project fi nish with a feeling of belonging and a sense of accomplishment.

Walking with youth on their journeys

Music therapy has long been used in treating people who have mental health issues. Now there is an increasing focus on ways to meet the needs of high-risk youth. We believe in creating opportunities for change and ‘walking’ with youth as they discover their own answers. Music therapy can help young people fi nd their voice in the midst of the challenges they face.

Related Resources

Canadian Association for Music Therapy

Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund

Music Therapy Association of British Columbia American

Music Therapy Association

Music Therapy World

About the Authors

Noele and Beth are music therapists in private practice in Vancouver. Noele directs a nationally recognized program for high-risk youth in Vancouver called I’m Dangerous With Sound. Beth specializes in rhythm-based music therapy with youth and facilitates Youth Living With Loss, an integrated creative arts program for bereaved youth
For more information on rhythm-based music therapy, phone Beth at 778-995-5735 or visit

For Youth Living with Loss, contact the North Shore Palliative Care Family Bereavement Program at 604-988-3131, extension 4701

For more information on I’m Dangerous With Sound, phone Noele at 604-879-3964 or visit

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The programs described in this article have been generously supported by the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund, Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Much Music and the Pacifi c Community Resources Society

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