As a practicing music therapist for over eight years, the most common question I got wasn't "How does it affect people?" or "is it effective with children?" or even "does it work?" Rather, the most common question was: "What IS it?"
Music therapy, developed in recovery rooms with wounded soldiers after both World War I and World War II, was originally designed to assist veterans in their perception of pain. Active and passive musical activities were helpful in pain management and even the emotional recovery for many veterans. Data began to be collected and the profession was born.
However, music has been used throughout history, well before the profession was recognized officially. As the saying goes "music soothes the savage breast" and humans have used music in many ways and for many different reasons.
The talking drums of African tribes were essential for communication and warning.
The tribal dancing and music of Native peoples in every part of the world brought a spiritual sense to the community, engendered healing, cooperation, celebration, bonding and unity among families and group members.
In the broader sense, music is a part of us; it's as natural as the rhythm of our breath and heartbeat. We respond to music as we respond to nature; it can alter our mood, give a sense of belonging, create a context for the emotions we are experiencing, motivate us, empower us, or just get us up and dancing.
In more specific ways, music can be used on so many levels to reach all people and provide a definitive sense of healing, of being more "in tune" with one's self and surroundings.
As a tool for use with those who have limited or challenging issues with verbal processing (those on the autistic spectrum, those with Alzheimer's disease, those with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments and so many more) music can provide a bridge of communication. In working with one little boy in particular, I used to be able to have a call and response communication with him in the form of a song even though he was technically unable to hold regular back and forth conversations with words.