Music Speaks When Words Don’t: Using Music in Substance Abuse Therapy

Using Music in Substance Abuse Therapy
Ian Jackson

Written By

Ian Jackson

Key Points:

  • Music has a powerful effect on the brain
  • There are many ways to integrate music into rehab
  • Music and dancing help expand comfort zones
  • Music helps us refocus
  • Music can help us communicate complicated feelings
  • Recovery information and experiences can be “attached” to music

The Efficacy of Music Therapy

The therapeutic value of music therapy for substance abuse and other disorders is well documented. Engagement with music, whether on an active or passive level, has proven effective in treating and managing various adverse conditions, from anxiety to chronic pain and more. [1][2]

Music is part of human history, culture, education, religion, and ritual. It is a human phenomenon with the potential to activate multiple areas of the brain simultaneously and improve many domains of functioning, such as physical, cognitive, and emotional. 

Like using substances, music enhances the pleasure centers of the brain, releasing endorphins, which signal the brain to increase dopamine levels. Additionally, music provides an outlet for self-expression, serves as a natural stress reliever, and improves audio-motor coordination.[3][4][5][6]

These emotional and physiological responses to music are therapeutic for individuals struggling with substance use disorder. Music therapy allows them to embrace substance abuse treatment, support, and community more readily.

Accentuate the Positive: Blending Music Therapy and Positive Reinforcement in Substance Abuse Treatment

We integrate music into every structure of our music therapy addiction program. 

While only some clients may be talented enough to play music, everyone can participate and reap the community benefits. Here are several different ways we integrate music into rehab:

  • Songwriting and Compositions: In the “music healing” group, clients write their own recovery songs and record them. This serves as a reminder of hope to motivate them throughout their recovery.
  • Performance and Production: Clients can perform their recovery songs to their peers in “open mic,” a group that encourages clients to get vulnerable and use different mediums to express themselves and promote everlasting change.
  • Therapeutic Drumming: Drum circle groups are held where clients are encouraged to play in rhythm, promoting both unity and synchronicity. Clients are also expected to do a drum solo before their peers, allowing for creative expression and vulnerability.
  • Live Performances: “Tune-Up Tuesday” and “Feel Good Friday” are groups held where clients are invited to listen to live performances from professional musicians in recovery. Their music usually promotes themes of hope, strength, and hardships, which all our clients can easily relate to.
  • Listening and Analysis: Clients are given an MP3 player upon arrival. These can be customized with the individual’s favorite artists and genres. Clients can listen freely, as it provides a sense of familiarity in times of distress. Clients are encouraged to choose songs that evoke emotion (e.g., happiness, sadness, loneliness, etc.). These external emotions allow the client to become vulnerable to their peers and clinicians.

In addition to integrating music into the structure and implementation of our treatment, Recovery Unplugged distinguishes itself from other treatment centers by focusing on recovery triggers instead of relapse triggers. 

Instead of only teaching clients to avoid things that could put them in harm’s way, we want to encourage them to seek activities and situations that enhance their pleasure and willingness toward the recovery process. These protective factors can help clients stay aligned with their true goals of getting sober from their drug abuse addiction and addressing corresponding mental health issues.

Anchoring recovery triggers in music may increase the likelihood that progress made during treatment is reinforced and sustained as music can be easily integrated into daily routines after completing treatment and reentering everyday life.

Specific Applications of Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs

Recovery Unplugged facilitates live music groups to help clients expand and enhance their comfort zones via multilateral participation. 

By clapping, dancing, singing along, or even something as simple as tapping their toe to the beat, clients get involved in the group as much as the artists who are performing.  When we dance, our brains often release neurotransmitters that create a feeling of comfort, relaxation, fun, and power. 

Music and dance activate the sensory and motor circuits of our brains, as well as the pleasure centers.  When we move in time with the rhythm, the positive effects of music are amplified. Our clients are compounding their psychological reward by synchronizing their movements with the music. 

Dancing also provides the chance to connect with others, share experiences, meet new people, and improve mental health. Movement to music relaxes our muscles, which releases tension built up during the day (especially tension accumulated in the deepest part of the musculature). The power of connection to others and acknowledging something greater than the self in the recovery process is crucial for success. 

Building muscle memory through dancing helps our clients appreciate and seek connection with others as they progress through a 12-step or recovery program.

Pump it Up: Psychological Benefits of Music Integration in Addiction Treatment

A staple at every Recovery Unplugged location is our “Pump-Up” module. 

Recovery Unplugged clients and staff alike engage in “Pump-Up” daily before work is begun. Going through the process of early recovery is both stressful and anxiety-provoking. So, the primary objective of “Pump-Up” is to take participants outside of themselves and refocus their energy for the day so they can start with a clean state.

Music can help jumpstart the process of recovery first thing in the morning by activating neural pathways and reward centers in the brain toward treatment goals. We practice what we preach.

For staff members, “Pump-Up” is practiced before our morning staffing meeting, where we go over the day’s work and then dance for three to four minutes. This allows our staff to reset their minds to be present for our clients daily. For our clients, “Pump-Up” starts with the facilitating therapist announcing the day’s topic and saying a few words about it. 

This is followed by a short motivational video on the topic, followed by the same three to four-minute dance. Clients often smile, laugh, and move freely during this exercise. Many of our alums have reported this to be beneficial to them with refocusing on what needs to be accomplished for the day and being present.

Eliminate the Negative: Using Musical Engagement to Motivate Treatment

One of the common misconceptions about Recovery Unplugged is that we ONLY offer traditional music therapy. That’s not the case.

We are using evidence-based practices for substance abuse treatment, such as interventions derived from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), and solution-focused therapy. 

Integrating music into the group and individual therapy processes can be as simple as playing a song to begin the group based on the scheduled topic of discussion or could be as complex as having a client identify songs that describe the different aspects of their life or personality traits. 

This comes from an experiential and existential standpoint in that we are trying to open creative pathways for our clients to help them express themselves in ways they did not see possible in other attempts–“Music speaks when words don’t.”

We also incorporate music into our work with families by having clients’ family members dedicate a song to their loved ones in our care. This has been proven to be a beneficial intervention in allowing family members who may have toxic communication patterns to speak differently to one another. 

Clients and families have reported this intervention to be beneficial to their care.

Removing the Labels: Destigmatizing Addiction to Maximize Effectiveness of Substance Abuse Therapy

Perhaps what we pride ourselves in most at Recovery Unplugged is how we treat our clients respectfully. Addicts and alcoholics were historically stigmatized in our society and expected to be treated as “lesser than” or as a number. Individualized care is at the forefront of our clinical processes. No two people with the same diagnosis or substance use disorder can be treated the same way.

We use an eclectic, evidence-based approach to our clinical program because we are treating people with disorders, not just treating disorder symptoms. 

While customized care plans are essential to our treatment, music often becomes the unifier that brings clients together. Ultimately, our main priority for care at Recovery Unplugged is the “Client Experience.” 

Our interactive groups and creative methods allow clients to not only receive information but to have an experience in treatment. People remember experiences better than information. Our goal is for clients to attach and “anchor” information to their experiences at Recovery Unplugged to be able to apply the skills and information learned in treatment to their lives in recovery.

Music helps them anchor these experiences by tying them to something even more tangible.

Discover The Affirmative: Utilizing Music Therapy as a Powerful Recovery Tool

The philosophy behind Recovery Unplugged is to use music as a catalyst to engage people in evidence-based practices for substance abuse and mental health treatment.  

  • Music can help clients connect emotions, experiences, memories, and behaviors in the brain.  
  • Music can make a person laugh, cry, release, and recall good or bad memories. 
  • Music can serve as an “anchor” to emotions related to different experiences. 

Recovery Unplugged can teach clients to use music therapy for substance abuse as a powerful tool in their recovery, as it helps them build new skills for living a healthy life. Call us now to learn more about how music therapy can help you.


We take our music-focused treatment for addiction very seriously, so we are going to hold our content to the same precision standards. Recovery Unplugged’s editorial process involves our editing safeguard and our ideals. Read our Editorial Process.

Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson, LPC-MHSP, LMHC is the Clinical Programs Director for Recovery Unplugged which is located in Northern Virginia, South Florida, Nashville, New Jersey and Austin TX.

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