Music Therapy: Scientific Perspectives and Clinical Prospects

Wolfgang Mastnak
Shanghai Conservatory of Music, professor of music education and music therapy, member of the
research group “aesthetics in music education”

DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.7824678


Music and arts for healing purposes look back over a multifaceted evolution and a myriad of phenomena in various cultures. Interdisciplinary considerations suggest to distinguish five different, but partly overlapping stages. The first refers to historical roots and ethnological sources, which have also influenced modern meta-theoretical perspectives and practices. The next stage marks the heterogeneous origins of modern music therapy in the 20th century that mirror psychological positions and novel clinical ideas about the healing power of music and the arts. The following heyday of music therapeutic models and schools of thought yielded an enormous variety of concepts and methods such as Nordoff-Robbins MT, Orff MT, Analytic MT, Regulatory MT, GIM or Sound Work.
As music and arts therapies gained in international importance, clinical applications required research about their therapeutic efficacy. According to standards of evidence based medicine and with regard to clearly defined diagnoses research on music therapeutic practice became the core of stage four.
The present stage is characterised by an emerging epistemological dissatisfaction with the paradigmatic reductionism of evidence based medicine and the strong will to discover the ‘true healing nature’ of music. This trend has given birth to interdisciplinary hermeneutics for novel foundations of music and arts therapies. Epigenetics, neuroplasticity, regulatory and chronobiological sciences, quantum physical philosophies, universal harmonies, spiritual and religious views, and the cultural anthropological phenomenon of aesthetics and creativity have become guiding principles.
The present paper relates to the author’s EASA-speech on the 2nd of December 2022 about landmarks in the evolution of modern music therapy and its interdisciplinary perspectives.


complexity sciences, cultural evolution, cultural sensitivity, ethno medicine, interdisciplinarity, medical meta-theory, quantum mind, underlying mechanisms.

  1. Introduction

The evolution of the human race is inextricably intertwined with symbolic, aesthetic and creative phenomena ‒ shortly, the arts, which are not only a vivid expression of cultural dynamics, but have also been serving as curative media for time immemorial.
Today’s clinical circles and public health systems apply the arts through approaches like music therapy or dance therapy ‒ or they use holistic models such as Sound Work, Orff music therapy or Inter-modal Expressive Therapy. In medicine, arts therapies are used in disciplines such as neuro-rehabilitation, paediatrics, psychiatry, geriatrics, psycho-oncology and obstetrics, while specific arts therapeutic techniques are precisely tailored to distinct medical conditions such as acquired brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s dementia.
Clinical benefits call for research on underlying mechanisms ‒ in other words: Why and how can arts alleviate symptoms or (help to) cure diseases? In this context, one of the most important support comes from neurosciences. By way of illustration, music is a vital promotor of neuroplasticity, which is important for psychotherapeutic changes or the regeneration of affected neural networks. Moreover, the arts can importantly stimulate the default mode network, an enormous information processing system, which is, however, not accessible to our conscious mind. Arts-based therapies also have a strong impact on the limbic system, which generates and modulates emotions, and even can boost the activity of the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s ‘joy centre’, hence its importance in mood disorders such as depression.
However, neurosciences are only one approach to explore the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effect of the arts. Recent activities also involve quantum consciousness and quantum spirit, as well as cross-cultural and culturally sensitive medicine, e.g. traditional Chinese medicine or shamanistic rituals and associated myths. Arts-based therapies are likely to have a flourishing future, and interdisciplinary research is needed to get deeper insights into their complex dynamics, as well as to optimise their multifaceted methods.
The present article intends to contribute to the EASA’s profound communication between sciences and the arts and involves the author’s previous work about evolutionary characteristics of music therapy (Mastnak, 2015a). Relevant findings during the last ten years have importantly substantiated those perspectives and hypotheses. Suggesting a theoretical framework, this new article encourages further interdisciplinary and translational research and aims at increased compatibility of culturally sensitive arts-based therapies with high-standard clinical practice and public health systems, also in the sense of the World Health Organization.


Interdisciplinary research on music therapy and aesthetics was greatly supported in inspired by the Shanghainese Music Aesthetic Theory and Practice Research Group 上海市高水平地方高校创新团队——音乐美育的理论与实践研究 under the guidance of Professor Dr Danhong Yu, curator of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.


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