Music Therapy vs Listening Therapy: What’s the Difference?

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Music therapy and listening therapy are frequently discussed in the context of therapeutic interventions, but they have distinct differences and applications. So, what’s music therapy? Music therapy is an evidence-based clinical use of musical interventions to improve clients’ quality of life. Music therapists are credentialed professionals who design music therapy experiences to address various emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. Through creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music within a therapeutic context, music therapy can help individuals manage stress, enhance memory, and improve communication.

Then, what is listening therapy, you might be wondering. Listening therapy generally refers to methods that use music and sound to improve auditory processing and listening skills. It frequently assists individuals with auditory processing disorders, ASD, ADHD, or learning difficulties, providing structured listening sessions that can lead to improvements in attention, learning, and emotional well-being. Unlike music therapy, listening therapy often focuses on the act of listening itself and its neurological benefits, which can be particularly beneficial for those who have difficulty processing auditory information. Please keep in mind that the following information is for informational purposes only, for further information please consult a medical professional. 

Key Takeaways

  • Music therapy utilizes a variety of musical experiences to address emotional and cognitive needs.
  • Listening therapy is a method focusing on improving auditory skills and related behaviors.
  • Both therapies offer unique benefits and are applied differently based on individual goals and conditions.

Defining Music Therapy

Music therapy is a structured practice involving a certified music therapist to help clients improve their mental and physical well-being through music-based interventions.

music sheet showing musical notes
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Historical Background and Development

The integration of music in healing practices dates back to ancient times. However, it gained prominence as a formal means of therapy during World War II as musicians visited hospitals to play for veterans suffering from war-related emotional and physical trauma. This led to the recognition of music’s therapeutic potential and the development of the field. The establishment of the American Music Therapy Association further advanced the profession, setting standards for practice and research in this healthcare field.

Key Principles and Techniques

Music therapy is founded on the principle that music can affect change in a person’s cognitive, emotional, and physical states. Techniques include the use of instruments, singing, movement, and the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), which combines music with guided imagery to elicit personal insights and emotions. The goal is to achieve individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship, addressing issues from anxiety and depression to pain and stress management.

Professional Practice

Professionals in this field, known as music therapists, must attain certification through the Certification Board for Music Therapists to earn the credential MT-BC (Music Therapist-Board Certified). They often work in various settings, including hospitals, rehab facilities, and private practice. Through clinical training and an internship, they develop their skills to work with diverse populations such as children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), adults with dementia, or individuals experiencing mental health challenges. Their treatment plans are tailored to meet the individualized goals of each client or group, employing a variety of music therapy techniques to foster healing, communication, and well-being.

Understanding Listening Therapy

Listening therapy, often referred to as music listening therapy, focuses on the therapeutic effects of listening to music as a means to improve health and well-being. It utilizes the subtle nuances of music—from rhythm to melody—to engage cognitive processes and promote healing.

Fundamentals of Listening Therapy

Listening therapy harnesses the power of music to address various mental health and cognitive issues. The underlying principle involves using the organized sound structures found in music to support and enhance the brain’s natural functions. Unlike music therapy, which might involve active participation in music-making, listening therapy emphasizes the role of the listener and the psychological and physiological responses that the act of listening can induce. Practices such as the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music embody this concept, where structured listening experiences aim to assist individuals in accessing altered states of consciousness for therapeutic purposes.

Applications and Benefits

A primary goal of listening therapy is to alleviate stress and reduce blood pressure, with programs often including classical music known for its calming effects. This form of therapy is considered evidence-based, linking the act of listening to music to various improvements in mental health conditions, such as reducing symptoms of dementia and enhancing memory. In the context of psychotherapy, listening therapy may complement other treatments, offering a non-invasive approach to improve mental health and well-being. Its benefits also extend to aiding with sleep disturbances and supporting emotional and cognitive development.

Listening Therapy in Various Settings

The adaptability of listening therapy allows its application in a range of contexts, from private therapy sessions to group settings. Schools have utilized it to aid in the development of children, while nursing homes and healthcare facilities have incorporated it to support the health and well-being of older adults. In group settings, listening therapy can act as a form of sound healing, enhancing relationships among participants and creating a sense of community. The versatile nature of listening therapy means it can be personalized to individual needs, whether in a clinical setting for targeted treatment or in day-to-day environments for general wellness support.


Music therapy and listening therapy both incorporate music as a central tool for improving mental and physical health, but they are distinct practices. Music therapy, which often involves a certified therapist, is an interactive process tailored to an individual’s needs, including activities like singing and playing instruments. Listening therapy typically involves a person enjoying music on their own, without the guidance of a therapist, and can be beneficial for relaxation and stress relief. They serve different purposes, but each can be a valuable component of a person’s wellness regimen.

Rob Gorski

Full time, work from home single Dad to my 3 amazing boys. Oh...and creator fo this blog. :-)
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