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Song Therapy to Soothe Anxiety - The Enemy Within

by Nigel Neill(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 260 - February 2020


Of course we all know music is good for us. Not a day goes by without some news item celebrating the latest research that proves the relationship between social inclusion, music and wellbeing but I’d like to just dip into this a little deeper and provide a bit of context so that when we meet we can enjoy some fun time together; some music making even!


4 young crowd


Music as a Friend

In song therapy music is the therapist. A whacky idea I know, but the logic is that in group settings such as community wellbeing choirs we can’t possibly build traditional one to one therapeutic relationships with our clients. Indeed, in song therapy we prefer the word participant specifically because of this fact. However the paradox is that, even though our professional relationships with our participants might sometimes be distant, our music making can indeed have profound therapeutic impacts, particularly when delivered over time. Song therapists bring familiar song into a space, patterns of air vibration that fill this space, triggering memories of loved ones, events and happenings in people’s lives. Memories that sometimes provide warm, safe feelings of love and security and, when shared with others, help us feel attached, part of a tribe, accepted just as we are.

Loved even.

Yes, just as a good friend might hold our hand in times of trouble, offer us empathy and a listening ear, so music and song eases our woes and soothes our soul.

Of course, just like a good friend, music can be there to encourage us to take new steps too; new adventures and explorations to find learning and understanding; ways forward in life after difficult times.

Yes, music as a friend.

Music as Medicine

Sound therapy is a celebration of the physics of sound - resonance, entrainment and other ways in which sound (air vibration) can have direct impacts upon the physiology of the human body. This is in truth a complex area to pick apart but is rooted in the way that every bone in our body, indeed every cell, every organ and tissue of our body is vibrating individually and collectively. The fingerprint of that pattern of vibration can sometimes offer us tell-tale signs as to health or otherwise. We might then use sound, perhaps gongs, singing bowls; tuned and untuned percussion; resonating directly through the human body, as a form of internal massage for organs and tissues that respond in a positive way to the stimulus of sonic manipulation.

Song therapy is also interested in this vibrational phenomena, but more specifically related to the way that the brain will vibrate at low frequencies in response to specific combinations of musical tones that we hear through our ears rather than soak in through our bodies. In our deepest sleep our brains are vibrating at between one and four times a second and through the use of binaural waves and isochronic beats we can encourage the old grey cells to relax a bit and entrain to those slow, chilled beats. Sleep even.

Gone man, solid gone !

As Baloo would say!

The beauty is that choral singing and chanting, sometimes on a single note, can induce the same physiological response, as indeed can hypnotic drumming patterns of constant rhythm; entraining, ( or perhaps we could even use the terms ‘massaging’ ) our brains, encouraging a calm meditative space and sometimes the deepest of sleeps.

Music as medicine also celebrates the wonder that our musical memories are stored in many different parts of the brain and when injury or disease have reduced our ability to communicate with ourselves and others, then these memories can be accessed to encourage social inclusion, communication, reminiscence and cognitive stimulation.     Beyond this too; the wonder that recalled words and music can communicate directly with the vocal cords to produce clear diction and verbal capacity where, at other times, there is none. This is a complex, magnificent area of study but ultimately offers ways forward for those who might stutter or perhaps have lost verbal capacity as the result of brain injury or dementia.

Eminem, Ed Sheeran and even King George VI are evidence enough. See also the case of Gabby Gifford - pop her name into Google along with the words music therapy.

Music as a Language

We all use musical pitch to communicate love and emotion. It is the theory behind the idea that we are all musical souls, that our musical genes are built in to us. The more we can use musical pitch to communicate with our mums and dads in the early months of life then the more chance we have of communicating our wants and needs and surviving. Indeed, if these opportunities to communicate through musical sounds are not offered or available (perhaps the disinterest of our parents or separation, or a congenital pre condition ) then there are chances that our normal social and psychological development will be hindered as a result.

This use of musical pitch to allow us to express emotions through music making is a beautiful sensitive part of music therapy training; indeed clinical music therapists are trained to not only encourage self-expression through musical language but to also to explore these emotions through music making. Explorations with a view to changing the way we think about ourselves, our behaviours and others in our lives. The way we think.

Song therapists certainly encourage self-expression through using music as a language. Indeed, the simple act of sharing of thoughts and emotions with others is known as a simple way of bringing our fears and worries to the surface where they might become more familiar and thereby, ultimately, less of a threat to us.

Very importantly song therapists are not qualified to actively encourage others to explore these emotions - indeed it can be very dangerous to attempt to build these kind of deep therapeutic psychological relationships in recreational settings and this requires a different set of therapeutic skills associated with counselling and psychotherapy.

Song Therapy and Anxiety

So, song therapists can use music and song to help us express our emotions, encourage verbal capacity, social inclusion, cognitive stimulation and perhaps to offer us the hand of safe secure friendship in difficult times.

We might even find ourselves micro exercising without even knowing it - the tapping of hands and feet and the improved coordination that familiar patterns of rhythm and melody can induce in us all, including those facing the challenge of MS, Parkinson’s or stroke.)

Whatever the specific therapeutic impact of our music making might be, song therapist practice is rooted in a humanist framework. This celebrates the concept of self-directed growth and change. The ability of the human spirit to move forward during difficult anxious times, towards a better place, sometimes with the help of our friends, our families and indeed our therapists.

The link between anxiety and physical wellbeing is firmly established of course, and there is no need to go into this in detail here. Stress of course might be our friend as we protect ourselves from the dangers of life in the short term, but our enemy too as it reaps havoc upon our blood pressure, our digestive systems and our ability to sleep as we divert resources away from the day to day metabolic needs of our bodies and towards the immediate needs of fight or flight.

Yes, perhaps ultimately so many of our therapeutic interventions are there to help us reduce the effects of anxiety in our lives as we try to find calmer safer spaces for ourselves and those of our loved ones, our clients and our music group participants too.

But beyond this, the causes of anxiety too; perhaps the loss of verbal capacity as the result of mild stroke or a brain injury; social exclusion as the result of bereavement or disability.

Causes and effects.


In his book The Courage to Be the theologian Paul Tillich identified three types of collective and individual anxiety that we face in our fast disconnected western world:

  • The anxiety of mortality;
  • The anxiety of condemnation;
  • The anxiety of meaninglessness;

and yes, perhaps this suggests that the roots of our anxieties are complex indeed and for sure, there isn’t time here to go into this in detail.

What perhaps we can hope for however is that, through our therapeutic interventions we might sooth the soul and bring a little peace and tranquillity into the lives of others and ourselves.

A punch on the nose to anxiety - the enemy within!

Acknowledgement Citation

Republished in revised format from Complementary Health Professionals


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About Nigel Neill

Nigel Neill is a professional community musician based in the south west of the UK running four community choirs in Taunton, Exeter, Minehead and Tiverton. He has worked extensively with learning disability groups and in life limiting care settings as well as providing on going music programmes for the brain injury charity Headway throughout Somerset, working with Parkinson’s UK in North and West Somerset and providing music for those with dementia in residential home settings. He has worked closely with the mental health charity Rethink.

His qualifications include a combined science honours degree; post graduate certificate in music and health (UWE) and certificate (level four) in counselling skills (UWE). He recently studied music therapy for two years in Bristol, before switching to counselling skills for a third year. Nigel is 58 years old, lives in West Somerset and is married with no children and may be contacted via

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