Posted on
Isabella Bautista | November 1, 2022

For the young, the old, and those in between, there is real scientific truth to the saying

“Music is medicine.”

When you think of therapy, the first thing that comes to mind likely involves sitting and talking on a sofa, jotting down thoughts in a journal, or taking prescription medication. However, there is one lesser-known type of therapy that many of us engage with, in a way, every day: music. 

Music therapy is exactly what it sounds like—the use of music to accomplish traditional goals of therapy, like improving mood, cognitive functioning, and general well-being. You may already like to go for a long walk, or a drive with your favorite playlist blasting in your ears, whenever you have a lot on your mind. If you’re an instrumentalist or a vocalist, you may like to play or sing as a way to de-stress. Formal music therapy involves many of these same actions. For example, playing music for the elderly might help with memory recall as they sing the lyrics of old tunes or with motor skills as they dance or tap their feet to the music. 

One approach to music therapy, known as cognitive behavioral music therapy (CBMT), is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that incorporates music. Many researchers, including those at the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab, are interested in how CBMT can be used in conjunction with community music therapy to produce social and intellectual benefits.

In one study published in July 2022, the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab investigated the effects of integrated parent-child music classes on preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and typical development (TD) preschoolers. 

Family activities have been shown to improve the development of autistic children’s social skills. The researchers wanted to explore the effects of the incorporation of music in family activities. 

Researchers hoped that music would improve the behavior of children with ASD because “aspects of musical activities, including predictability, reinforcement, emotion regulation, shared attention, and social play, can scaffold participation of children with ASD and their parents or peers.” In addition to providing structure to their interactions with their families or peers, music also has the potential of helping children with ASD with emotional regulation and processing as well as the production of positive attitudes. In addition, music could provide an added benefit for nonverbal children with ASD by presenting them with a new medium of expression.

Data and observations were gathered from interviews with parents. Interviews were conducted twice during the study: first, before a twelve-week parent-child music class program about their expectations for the program, and then again at the conclusion of the program about their experiences in the program. During the music class program, families of both ASD and TD children were grouped and participated in music making activities together. In the end, the study found that although the participation of TD children was generally higher than the participation of ASD children, both groups saw notable increases in participation over the course of the program. Thus, it was concluded that the addition of music to family activities likely results in increased connection between ASD children and their parents.

To follow the July 2022 published study, the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab has proposed another study investigating the effect of music therapy.

Parents of children with serious health issues, such as those who are cognitively-impaired, are more prone to anxiety, depression, and stress than the average parent of a healthy child. However, the VMC Lab predicts that music therapy, applied through a songwriting intervention, could be an effective way to improve both these children and their parents’ mental well-being.

According to the proposed study protocol, this next study will be conducted by having parents work with board-certified music therapists to write song lyrics about their children. At the end of the intervention, a comprehensive DVD will be created. This DVD will include a recording of the song lyrics, musical accompaniment, and photographs documenting child-family interactions. Since cognitively-impaired children are sometimes unable to communicate or participate in certain activities with their families, families may feel frustrated by the lack of connection they feel with their children. Thus, the hope is that a songwriting intervention would help lessen that frustration by shortening the distance between kids and their parents, ultimately bringing families closer together and boosting the parents’ overall mood and mental state.


Akard TF, Davis K, Hills T, Lense M, Kim D, Webber R, Dietrich MS, Gilmer MJ. 2021. Songwriting intervention for cognitively-impaired children with life-limiting conditions: Study protocol. Contemporary Clinical Trials Communications. 22:100765. doi:10.1016/j.conctc.2021.100765.

‌Lense M, Liu T, Booke L, Crawley Z, Beck S. 2022 Aug 18. Integrated parent–child music classes for preschoolers with and without autism: Parent expectations and experiences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1111/nyas.14875. [accessed 2022 Oct 10].