Music Therapy, Mindfulness, and Healing

by | Apr 29, 2018 | General, Meditation

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind,
flight to the imagination and life to everything” – Plato

According to the definition from the American Music Therapy Association, “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music Therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals”.

I have worked as a Board Certified Music Therapist since 1988. Although music therapists work with all types of individuals with disabilities, the scope of my practice has always been the adult psychiatric population. For thirty years I have seen the benefit of music and sound on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in people who are chronically imbalanced due to mental illness. Music is definitely a change agent. It has a physiological effect on the recipient that reaches more than just the person’s thoughts and feelings – it’s a whole body experience.

Soon after becoming a music therapist, I began my journey toward personal and spiritual development through meditation and yoga in 1992. Through the knowledge and experiences I had from studying and practicing ancient techniques from the yogic and Buddhist traditions, I became acutely aware of that which is beyond the mind and always present, never changing. I began integrating traditional meditation and yogic practices using sound and music into my sessions with the mental health clients I served, with excellent results. Not only did their symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive thought patterns, mental confusion and even panic attacks decrease, they experienced their core awareness. There was an opportunity for more than just improvement, they began to heal.

This led to my firm realization that music therapy has the potential to help everyone, not just the disabled or handicapped. You do not need a diagnosis to receive the benefits. The healing effects of sound, when used to connect with core awareness, is a universal practice based on nature, not limited to a specific population of people. I decided it’s my intention to bridge the traditional definition of music therapy to the general public.


“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into space between the notes
and curl my back to loneliness” – Maya Angelou

How can you use music-sound therapy for living stress free? Here are two basic practices you can begin to experiment with to eradicate the effects of stress from your daily experience of life. Each practice is a mindfulness technique as well.

Vocal Toning

Toning is the process of sustained vocalizing of a single vowel sound for therapeutic benefit. There is no melody, rhythm or words – just the vibration of the sound. Through vocal toning, the participant will experience the sound and its effects on parts of the body. Our bodies are designed to feel vibration. Our skeletal framework is the perfect resonating chamber for vibrations to resonate. Depending on the vowel sound chosen, a vibration will be felt in a certain area of the body. This can help loosen and release stress that may be locked in that area. Toning provides a massage from the inside.

As an example, I have practiced toning while driving to an anxiety-provoking meeting, an interview or an audition. I vocalize the sound “ah” for as long as I can sustain it. I feel the vibration in my throat area, the back of my neck and my chest. This begins to loosen and open up these areas, releasing the tension. In addition, sustaining the sound as long as I can expel as much air as possible out of my lungs with the extended exhalation. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system to help my body release toxins and induce relaxation.

Toning is accessible to everyone, with no prerequisites of vocal ability or training. It is not singing; it is sounding. Toning allows you to experience the effects of sound vibration on your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. In my work with clients, toning has been particularly helpful for folks who have difficulty breathing properly due to anxiety. If exhaling is difficult, tension is often the cause. By vocalizing a sound, exhalation is occurring but the client is not focused on it. The sound vibration will be the focus. Psychologically as well as physically, the tension will be released.

Here are a few examples of vowel sounds that can be used and where one might feel the vibration:
UU (as in who) – the base of spine, very grounding and calming
AH (as in car) – heart area, centering and expanding
AY (as in pray) – neck and throat, increases confidence
EE (as in knee) – head, energizing
MM (humming) – whole body balance

How to use vocal toning:

-Find a place you will feel comfortable toning, without disturbing others.
-Start with a hum, the MM sound, and hold it as long as you can.
-Breathe in and repeat for approximately 6-8 rounds, but do not get too focused on counting.
-Feel your body and where the vibration is occurring. Listen to the sound.
-After experiencing the humming, try different vowel sounds in the same way and see how they feel in the body.

The entire practice only needs to be 5-10 minutes.
After you’re finished it helps to sit in silence and feel your breath, your body, noticing any thoughts and emotions. Toning is an excellent way to practice mindfulness.


If anyone ever told you that you have no musical ability or that you have no rhythm, they misinformed you. Before you were born you heard your mother’s heartbeat. Your body right now has its own rhythm as a result of your pulse, metabolism, breathing patterns, inner vibrations, and of course the main drum inside – your heartbeat. You can feel the rhythm.

Drumming is the original expression of music since the beginning of time and its presence exists in every culture around the world. Its influence manifests on a kinesthetic level, tapping into core awareness, going beyond the thinking mind. The therapeutic use of drumming harnesses the natural power of rhythm for shifting awareness for the purpose of healing. Drumming releases suppressed emotions, loosens inhibitions, allows for creative expression and cultivates a feeling of universality when practiced with others. Remember, fear exists whenever there is a feeling of separation. The prevalence of “us-and-them” mentality has been creating an epidemic of fear and anxiety throughout society as a whole. The feeling of connection that drumming provides is the perfect antidote to the perception of separation that exists.

I’d like to dispel some misconceptions about drumming. When I started incorporating the use of drumming in my music therapy practice, the clients I worked with were almost paralyzed with fear about touching a drum. There is this underlying past impression of insecurity about doing the wrong thing that many people struggle with. However, you don’t have to play like Buddy Rich to use a drum therapeutically. If you have ever tapped your toe to music, moved your fingers or hands to a song while driving, or danced, you can touch a drum just fine. The mind loves to raise the bar of expectation and demand perfection. Be aware of this tendency and let it go. Even when these self-critical thoughts arise while playing, let them go.

Another misconception is the belief you need a leader to follow. This lack of trust in yourself is most likely in other areas of life as well. Unlock your creativity. It’s there, it just needs expression. Explore how to create sound and play with the silence. Nobody is judging you and there is no audience to please. There is no right or wrong in your expression. It can be a liberating experience to play your feelings on a drum to release them. There is nothing worse than allowing difficult feelings to stay locked inside with no way to express or process them. Give your feelings a voice through sound. It has an amazing healing potential that will definitely help reduce your stress.

How to use drumming:
You will need a drum. These are easy to find in all price ranges. You can even adapt something already in your household to use as a drum, such as a large plastic container, bucket or old Samsonite suitcase. My favorite drums to use for therapeutic purposes are djembes and frame drums.

Drumming for stress relief: Find a video or play a recording of any type of music that has a strong beat and play along. Experience the rhythm as a mindfulness practice and listen with your whole body. Do not use the drumming as a time to think. No thinking required. Try to practice your drumming for at least ten minutes, preferably twenty. The longer you play the more you get in “the zone” be your thinking mind will subside.
Drumming to express feelings: When you have strong feelings about something stressful that happened, play your feelings on the drum. If the feeling was set to music, what would it sound like? Nobody is critiquing this practice, it is just for you. Giving emotions form, outside of yourself, is a very helpful way to work through issues.

Drum circles: If you have the option of trying a drum circle in your area, go for it! It can be a wonderful way to have fun and get rid of the stress.


“A good groove releases adrenaline in your body. You feel uplifted, you feel centered, you feel calm, you feel powerful. You feel that energy.
That’s what good drumming is all about.” – Mickey Hart

If you live in the Rochester, NY area, I warmly invite you to Yoga Music Therapy Group, beginning Wednesday, May 2nd from 7-9pm at our LSF Main Office in Rochester, NY. We will be practicing both of these techniques, as well as enjoying open discussion, LSF Meditation, and LSF Nada Meditation. This 8-week therapy group will be offered this Spring and again Fall 2018.

Marilyn Guadagnino LCAT MTBC offers Living Stress Free Counseling, Psychotherapy, Music Therapy and Mindfulness Meditation Instruction. Learn more about Marilyn’s Practice.

Verified by Psychology Today