Music Therapy Science

Why does music therapy work? The Science Behind the Music.

Interactive Map of the Brain

Click on a brain marker or the navigation buttons below to learn more about how the brain processes music and why music therapy works to optimize the brain and provide more efficient therapy.

Read Overview


Music is Processed in All Areas of the Brain

  • Music is processed in all areas of the brain and has the ability to access and stimulate areas of the brain that may not be accessible through other modalities.
  • Research shows that music enhances and optimizes the brain, providing better, more efficient therapy and improved performance of cognitive, motor, and speech/language tasks. Studies show that people perform these tasks better with music than without.
  • Research supports parallels between non-musical functioning and music-assisted tasks, which provides a scientific rationale for the use of music in therapy. 


Cognitive Skills
  • Executive functions including reasoning, planning, problem solving, attention, working memory, organization, abstract thinking, and initiation, inhibition and monitoring of actions.
Brain Areas Involved in Cognitive Skills
  • Frontal lobe - prefrontal cortex including dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex. Limbic system - hippocampus.
How the Brain Processes Music for Cognitive Skills
  • The brain is highly responsive to all elements of music including rhythm, tempo, melody, harmony, etc., and rhythm is particularly organizing for the brain. These auditory stimuli ascend to the higher cognitive processing areas of the brain and optimize and enhance performance of cognitive skills.
How Music is Used to Improve Cognitive Skills 
  • Music provides an optimal learning environment, organizes information into smaller chunks that are easier to learn and retain, and aids in memorization.
  • Music captivates and maintains attention.  Research indicates that attention is necessary before learning can take place.
  • Research indicates that music is often successful as a mnemonic device for learning new concepts, such as learning the alphabet through the "ABC Song".
  • Music therapists can use music to improve cognitive skills such as attention, memory, mood, and executive functioning (higher level thought processing) including academic skills.


Speech/Language Skills
  • Speech production, articulation, comprehension, reading, writing, and organization of language and thoughts.
Brain Areas Involved in Speech/Language Skills
  • Frontal lobe - Broca's Area. Temporal lobe - Wernicke's Area. Parietal lobe - angular gyrus.
How the Brain Processes Music for Speech/Language
  • Speech and singing are closely related in function and proximity in the brain. Speech naturally incorporates musical elements such as meter, rhythm, and the melodic contour of prosody, and research shows that music enhances these speech/language functions.
How Music is Used to Improve Speech/Language
  • Research supports parallels between singing and speech production and music's ability to facilitate improved communication skills.
  • Music therapy can enable those without language to communicate and express themselves non-verbally. Additionally, music therapy often assists in the development of verbal communication, speech, and language skills.
  • Music therapists can assist a person with dysfunction or delays in various speech/language abilities to learn how to speak through singing or communicate nonverbally through music. 


Motor Skills
  • Voluntary and involuntary movement, motor planning, motor control, motor coordination and balance.
Brain Areas Involved in Motor Skills
  • Frontal lobe - primary motor cortex, premotor cortex, and supplementary motor area. Cerebellum and basal ganglia.
How the Brain Processes Music for Motor Skills
  • While auditory stimuli ascend to the higher cognitive processing areas of the brain, they simultaneously descend directly down the spinal column, causing an immediate reflex-like reaction in muscles of the body to produce more organized movement. 
How Music is Used to Improve Motor Skills
  • Research supports parallels between rhythm and movement. Rhythm can be used as an external timekeeper to organize, coordinate and improve movement.
  • Music therapists can use music to facilitate more functional, organized, coordinated, and higher quality movements in fine motor and gross motor skills including motor planning, motor control, motor coordination, gait training and body awareness.

Social-Emotional & Behavioral

Social-Emotional & Behavioral Skills
  • Appropriate social behavior, impulse control, reward-based learning, motivation and emotional processing.
Brain Areas Involved in Social-Emotional & Behavioral Skills
  • Limbic system - amygdala. Frontal lobe - anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. 
How the Brain Processes Music for Social-Emotional & Behavioral Skills
  • Music stimulates the emotional and reward centers of the brain and acts as a natural motivator and stimulator for appropriate social and emotional responses.
How Music is Used to Improve Social-Emotional & Behavioral Skills
  • Music is highly motivating and engaging and may be used as a natural reinforcer for desired responses. Music therapy can stimulate clients to reduce negative and/or self-stimulatory responses and increase participation in more socially appropriate ways.
  • Music therapy facilitates improved social skills such as shared play, turn-taking, reciprocity, listening and responding to others.
  • Music therapy provides a non-threatening and structured environment in which individuals have the opportunity to develop identification and appropriate expression of their emotions.


Sensory Skills
  • Sensory processing of the five senses as well as processing proprioceptive (input to muscles and joints) and vestibular (input for balance) stimuli.
Brain Areas Involved in Sensory Skills
  • Parietal lobe - primary somatosensory cortex. Temporal lobe - primary auditory cortex and superior temporal gyrus. Occipital lobe - primary visual cortex. Frontal lobe - olfactory and gustatory systems. Brainstem - midbrain, pons, medulla oblongata and inferior colliculi.
How the Brain Processes Music for Sensory Skills
  • Music involves the auditory, visual and tactile senses and is processed in all areas of the brain, accessing and stimulating areas of the brain that may not be accessible through other modalities.
How Music is Used to Improve Sensory Skills
  • Music provides concrete, multi-sensory stimulation (auditory, visual, and tactile). The rhythmic component of music is very organizing for the sensory systems. As a result, auditory, visual, tactile, proprioceptive (input to muscles and joints), vestibular (input for balance) and self-regulation processing skills can be improved through music therapy.