The Connection Between Psychotherapy and Music

by | September 01, 2022

Strange Bedfellows
As far back as I can remember I’ve been in love with both music and psychology. As a child I’d take time between singing songs with the radio to inexplicably ask my parents things like, “Why are some people happy and some sad?” and “Why do people fight? When I got older I took time between playing rock n roll shows to move to Zurich, Switzerland and become a psychologist.

“Woah, now what am I going to do?” I fretted. “I can’t be a full time psychotherapist and a full-time musician.”

Or can I? I decided to go for it—professional by day, rocker by night. Having two careers was a difficult balancing act until I realized they’re actually one and the same endeavor. I don’t mean this in the music therapy sense; that’s not what I do. For me, music is therapy and therapy is music.

Now, I live back in the U.S. where I coach clients and play music, and it all feels like one exciting project.

The Connection Between Psychotherapy and Music
Psychotherapy and life coaching are different from one another, but both involve personal growth work where you explore the unknown in yourself—the parts of you that you repress or have yet to learn about. In this work you can develop new awareness that frees you in a powerful way. When this happens it feels like a weight is suddenly lifted off and you can fly like a bird.

Well, that’s exactly what occurs when I write a song. I enter into an altered state and wait for something to happen—a raw emotion, a mysterious image, a phrase out of left field, or an insight that surprises me. It’s a fishing expedition into the unknown and I return home with either nothing or with a nice catch. When the latter happens I feel like I just had a therapy session with the great guru, except that it’s just me, my guitar, and the sound waves. Sometimes people have a similar experience when they listen to their favorite tunes.

Great songs make you feel and think in a way that connects you to something deeper, truer, more real, and more ecstatic than your usual experience of life. That’s the power of music. It’s a superhighway into your subconscious—the feelings, thoughts and ways of being that reside in you but only as potentials, not as lived realities.

The Connection Between Psychotherapy and Music
Listening to an awesome song is like a three minute therapy session. The only thing missing is being able to integrate the experience into your life. In other words, music is a potent magic that connects you to a deep place without you knowing how this happens. Working on your problems does the same thing but makes you conscious in a way that enables you to use what you learn in your everyday life.

What Connects Psychotherapy And Music?
The central connecting point between psychotherapy and music is the concept of process. Contrary to conventional wisdom, human problems aren’t pathological even though they cause pain; they’re meaningful processes designed to force you to grow at a deep level. We’re so used to thinking of trouble in our lives as something wrong. We look at our problems as meaningless garbage to throw in the trash. We look for quick fixes and distractions in our attempt to get away from what’s bothering us. But this attitude is actually counterproductive. It’s one of the reasons people suffer from the same issues for years, decades, or even whole lifetimes.

A problem is your personal growth process trying to happen, and that’s how you should approach it. Listening to your favorite music is also your personal growth process trying to happen, although we don’t usually think of it this way. You’re drawn to certain music because it gives you an experience you need more of in your life. It makes you feel things that are already within you but you don’t have access to… until your song rocks the radio!

The Connection Between Psychotherapy and Music

Psychology Says The Mind Is Like A Computer But It’s Not – The Mind Is Like Music
Over the last hundred years psychologists have put forth a variety theories to understand the human mind. They’ve used things like clocks, looms, and telephone switchboards to try to illustrate how the mind works. The most current theories draw on computer science.

There are lots of ideas within this approach but they’re all flawed in some way. They view the mind as a static entity like a machine run by software that sometimes malfunctions. A personal problem is seen as a software glitch you have to fix.

The fault with this way of thinking is that human experience is based on what things mean to us whereas computer language is simply a series of 0’s and 1’s that don’t relate to meaning at all. A computer doesn’t find one particular thought or feeling any more meaningful than another. The mind simply doesn’t adhere to these kinds of mechanistic models because it’s not a static entity with a fixed set of instructions; it’s a fluid process driven by meaning.

The Connection Between Psychotherapy and Music
A more accurate model of the mind is music. Music is built on processes—the relationships between notes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. It has no absolute, fixed elements, nothing that exists in and of itself as a permanent entity.

You might be thinking, “But wait, isn’t a musical note such an entity?” Yes, but one note is not music; music is created by how notes (and other musical elements) interact with each other. It’s made up of dynamic relationships that create meaning on an emotional level, not of set components.

There isn’t even really such “thing” as a C-major scale; that’s just one of infinite ways the human mind can arrange an endless number of notes. The notes are just the raw materials for the musical process.

It’s the same with your problems; your depression, anxiety, or relationship issue is not a malfunction in a mind-machine like a software error in a computer. It’s a meaningful process that presents you with the raw materials for transforming who you are. Your difficulty is like a song—an emotional process with a message. That which causes you pain contains the hidden music of your personal growth.

The Connection Between Psychotherapy and Music

Music’s Transformative Power *
I like to say that therapy helped me but rock n roll saved me. Music has mysterious powers that can bypass all the noise in your life. I don’t intentionally use music when I work with clients but sometimes it finds its way in on its own. I want to tell you about Sandy,* a 46 year-old client who had a strange musical experience in our session. Find out how a song changed her life in my blog post, How One Song Healed a Year of Sadness.

*Client names have been changed.

Dr. Zwig

©2023 Dr. Adam Zwig

Meet Dr. Adam Zwig—psychologist-musician, educator, and author. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology, has had 9 Top Ten hit singles on the U.S Adult Contemporary charts, and is an internationally renowned workshop leader and lecturer. He has been featured on Billboard, SiriusXM Radio, CBS Radio, and many other stations, and in People Magazine, SPIN, Pollstar, and many other publications. Dr. Zwig has released 7 albums, and his music can be heard on National TV, including NBC, Fox, and Fuel TV. He has more than 160 million views on YouTube, over half a million social media followers, and has scored in the top 10% of rock artists streamed on Spotify in 2022. His forthcoming book, Your Problem Is Your Teacher, shows how life problems are not pathological but rather personal growth processes trying to happen. His podcast, The Dr. Zwig Show, posts new episodes every Wednesday.

DISCLAIMER: The content contained herein is for inspirational, educational, and entertainment purposes only. Nowhere in this Blog does Dr. Zwig diagnose or treat a viewer with any kind of psychological, mental, emotional or physical disorder as might be diagnosed and treated by a personal psychologist or other professional advisor. The content is not intended to be a substitute for working with a therapist but is for the purpose of educating the viewer about new approaches to working on personal problems. Viewers should use this Blog at their own risk, with the understanding that Dr. Zwig is not liable for its impact or effect on its users. Viewing this Blog does not form a practitioner/client relationship between the viewer and Dr. Zwig. Dr. Zwig is not responsible for any action taken by a viewer based upon any information in this Blog. Never disregard professional medical advice or stop taking psychiatric medication based on something you have read on this Blog without a doctor’s supervision and ongoing therapeutic support. Dr. Zwig is an educator, author, and life coach in the U.S., and a psychotherapist in Switzerland. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology. He is also a rock n roll musician.