Girl playing guitar

Alternative PTSD Treatment Opportunities Found in Music

By 2030 the rate of veteran suicides will exceed the number of US combat deaths since 9/11, estimates say. But veteran organizations work to decrease this number with alternative PTSD treatments.

Broken bones and torn ligaments are pretty straightforward. You get a cast, have your friends sign it, and eventually you get back on track.

But the human brain is a complex unit.

Consider 19th-century rail worker Phineas Gage.

A metal rod shot through his head while clearing a path with explosives.

Yet Gage lived for ten years following the accident.

Still, a single bar-fight punch can be fatal.

With such a fragile organ, it’s expected that some alternative PTSD treatments can vary in effectiveness.

As veterans are familiar with physically demanding tasks, it’s no wonder outdoor activities are fantastic therapy.

And that’s what they do at Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities (CAMO). The Colorado-based organization offers programs to encourage people with mental and physical conditions to get on the slopes.

That’s because physical activity in group settings creates a therapeutic environment.

Man without legs using specialized equipment to help him ski as an alternative PTSD treatment
Image courtesy of Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities (CAMO) | Photo by Jim Mallouk

People on the coast find a similar experience with surf therapy.

Veteran group One More Wave supplies fellow servicemembers with customized surf equipment and a network of friends in the surf community to keep them on the water.

Man with prosthetic leg learning to surf as an alternative PTSD treatment
Image Courtesy of One More Wave | Nate Hamilton Wake Surfing in Miami | Photographer Unknown

But therapy isn’t limited to exercise.

Did you ever think you would see Navy SEAL and art therapy in the same sentence?

Well, you just did. 

In 2018 after leaving their SEAL teams, Tribe Sk8z founders DJ and Cole combined skateboards and art to offer a unique service to the military community. 

Each skateboard deck honors teammates and families with detailed and stunning designs while providing a therapeutic outlet.

Before that, DJ participated in art therapy through the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE).

Detailed wooden design on skateboard as a result of art therapy, an alternative PTSD treatment
Photo Courtesy of Tribe Sk8z

Physical exercise is excellent, but anything involving creativity is healing.

That’s why music therapy is a viable alternative PTSD treatment.

Soundtrack to War

Music is everywhere, and it defines eras.

It’s hard to listen to “Fortunate Son” by CCR without picturing Vietnam. Or maybe Forrest Gump and Bubba flying in a Huey without the proper headgear.

Of course, Spotify has a host of war compilations from Iraq, Vietnam, and even the Korean War.

And many retired iPods sit in basements across the country, with forgotten deployment mixes.

But servicemembers enjoyed music long before it was ever recorded.

The British sang “Yankee Doodle” to mock the Americans even during colonial times. If you wondered, a “doodle” is a redneck, and a “dandy” is a jerk.

But throughout history, music had a more practical use in militaries worldwide.

In Ancient Rome, the Romans played tubas and trumpets to send orders on the battlefield.

Irish troops used bagpipes in war to boost morale and intimidate their enemies, and Chinese soldiers did something similar with bugles during the Korean War.

Modern military recruiters even zero in on musicians as potential recruits.

That’s because every branch offers jobs for prospects to serve as musicians full-time, and some spend their entire military career playing an instrument in uniform.

But the use cases for music in the military include more than battlefield communication and ceremony service.

Because by promoting music therapy as an alternative PTSD treatment, we can save lives.

History of Music as an Alternative PTSD Treatment

Ancient philosophers Plato and Pythagoras studied music and its therapeutic benefits long before modern therapists did.

In fact, Pythagoras was the first recorded to prescribe music instead of traditional medicine.

“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.”


Even the Bible mentions it:

“And it happened that whenever the spirit of melancholy from God was upon Saul, David would take the lyre (harp) and play it. Saul would then feel relieved, and the spirit of melancholy would depart from him”

I Samuel, 16:23

During and after World War 1, musicians visited military clinics to comfort those in recovery.

An English musician named Margaret Anderton supplied music therapy to Canadian veterans, and after the war she helped pioneer music therapy studies at Columbia University.

Later, the United Service Organizations (USO) sent celebrities overseas during other conflicts to entertain the troops.

But musicians like Paula Lind Ayers sang for veterans returning from war long before the 1940s.

People of the time referred to her as “the girl who could sing away shell shock.”

In 1941, Harriet Ayer Seymour established the National Foundation of Music Therapy. Seymour, a musician, likely trained over 500 music therapists during the war.

Towards the end of World War 2, a Veterans Affairs hospital in Illinois experimented with radio as therapy.

Medical staff broadcasted a mix of talk radio and music depending on the time of day. Hospital staff found that when music played, spirits went up.

But, when quiet, people dispersed and kept to themselves.

With this kind of track record, it’s clear music therapy deserves more attention as an alternative PTSD treatment.

That’s why military facilities including Walter Reed and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, now provide outpatient music therapy.

Civilian Music Therapy

Of course, combat veterans aren’t the only people that can take advantage of alternative PTSD treatments.

Military hospitals might change their therapy for service members, but the treatment can work for anyone.

Sexual assault survivors also use music therapy as part of the healing process.

And the use cases go farther than PTSD.

Others use music therapy for child development issues and in senior care.

As a kid, the only thing worse than undergoing a medical operation is the anxiety that leads up to it.

Tonsil removal is hardly major surgery, but tell that to a seven-year-old.

Young girl receiving band aid in doctors office
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

That’s why the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles uses music therapy to soothe children before procedures.

The hospital claims that treatment contributed to a 20% decrease in stress levels and a 10% decrease in pain.

In a 2014 Cochrane review, researchers studied musical effects in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The study found music therapy can help these children share thoughts and feelings in new ways.

“Where words fail, music speaks.”

Hans Christian Anderson

Music also calms patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

This is because songs have strong connections with distant memories. And sometimes re-connecting with these songs helps highlight lost memories and improve communication.

In stroke cases, research suggests that listening to music can reduce confusion.

But how?

Teppo Sarkamo at the University of Helsinki says it’s simple. Music excites the brain, and blood flow increases, and more blood means more oxygen which can repair damaged areas.

Evidence also shows that music can also aid people with depression and anxiety.

Specific Types of Music Therapy

There are two types of music therapy, passive and active.

Patients passively practice music therapy by listening to music at home or in a group.

Active treatment includes playing an instrument or performing exercises such as keeping a beat on a drum or keyboard.

Therapy usually takes place in an office, but technology allows for remote options.

Some specialists use apps like Quenza so treatment can be available 24/7.

Through the app, therapists can assign listening and journaling exercises. This approach is an effective way to ease into live sessions for many.

Also, Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) may help those with conditions that affect motor skills, such as Parkinson’s.

By focusing on a rhythm with instruments, clinicians can rebuild damaged connections between the brain and body.

As music therapy became more popular, organizations established different methods.

In the late 1950s, pianist Paul Nordoff and special education instructor Clive Robbins created a learning method called Nordoff-Robbins therapy.

The Nordoff-Robbins method also takes a hands-on approach with instruments. Initially, the process was specific to children with psychological disorders that limited verbal communication.

Through music, therapists establish connections in new ways.

Research continued through the 1970s and 1980s and received significant funding in 1990.

Thanks to several English rock legends, the Nordoff-Robbins group opened its first office in London in the early 1990s.

Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Paul McCartney performed to raise money for the up-and-coming facilities, to name a few.

Paul McCartney with guitar visiting with children in 1986
Image courtesy of Nordoff-Robbins | Paul McCartney in 1986

A similar approach is Orff-Schulwerk therapy.

Schulwerk, German for “schoolwork,” combines listening, playing, and singing in group settings.

Both types are still practiced in schools, hospitals, and private organizations.

Songwriting for Therapy

In 2011, Harvard University teamed up with songwriter Darden Smith and Home Base, a foundation between MA General Hospital and The Red Sox Foundation.

Smith, also a founder of SongwritingWith: Soldiers, creates music professionally as an alternative PTSD treatment.

Darden and the SWS team collaborate with combat vets to write unique songs based on traumatic experiences.

Once recorded, the music is accessible to the participant and others with similar experiences.

To test the effectiveness of this treatment, Smith and the Home Base team worked with multiple veterans to collect information through physical data and interviews.

After the team recorded the songs, the participants wore FitBits and listened to their songs twice a day for four weeks.

At the end of the month, the participants reported a 33% drop in depression-related symptoms.

Retired Air Force Technical Sergeant Blair Morin says that he can go out in public and spend more time with his kids due to the treatment.

I reached out to Morin to see if the therapy helped long-term.

“I continue to listen to my song frequently, as well as others that help me progress a lot. They provide an outlet to let the emotions through in a controlled situation. It’s a way to regulate the release, the song ends, and I can carry on.”

Blair Morin-USAF, TSgt, Retired

The SongwritingWith: Soldiers team continues to help hundreds of veterans with PTSD with this process. From there, vets can listen to the music for years or inspire them to create their own.

Darden Smith sitting on stool with guitar
Photo By Matt Lankes | Courtesy of Darden Smith 

Play it Yourself

Actively participating in making music shows promise, as does Neurologic Music Therapy.

But although learning to play an instrument can seem difficult, the rewards can be everlasting for those who invest the time.

And you aren’t too old.

SongwritingWith: Soldier’s songs are simple, making the pieces easier to create.

But also, the lyrics become more pronounced since the guitar is the only other sound.

This makes the learning process meditative, as all concentration falls on the chord or note at hand—a similar approach to One More Wave.

It’s hard to focus on anything but the guitar or surfboard-especially if you’re new.

Playing guitar is uniquely helpful as it requires multiple parts of the brain to stay active.

The left side, which controls logic, sorts out notes, chords, and finger sequences for proper sounds. Each hand is doing two separate exercises, strumming or neck positioning.

The right side of the brain that oversees creativity is at work as the player organizes what kind of mood they want to play.

Musicians know the power of expression that learning to play an instrument allows.

Erich Andreas, a musician and founder of the Unstoppable Guitar System, offers free lifetime memberships for his online training to all US veterans.

But if you aren’t a veteran, you can still take advantage of free training.

Erich Andreas holding guitar, image from his website
Image courtesy of Erich Andreas |

Reach Out

It’s always between veterans and medical providers to decide the best treatment.

Since PTSD is a complex injury, it’s important to highlight new or lesser-known methods.

But the best therapy in the world only works if those who need it have the proper resources. People are reluctant to seek help due to the social stigma of PTSD and other mental health issues in general.

Others become more knowledgeable by talking about these issues in a wider scope, which helps reduce negative stereotypes.

Whether you might benefit from music therapy or know someone who could, it’s up to us to share these known alternative PTSD treatments and raise suicide awareness.

The estimated veteran suicide rate for the next nine years is sobering.

But through the support of medical treatment and veteran organizations, the statisticians will have to rework their data.

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


Hi, I'm Greg. The pen IS mightier than the sword!