Veterans and the Power of Music

by: Laetitia Brundage, MT-BC

A Time to Reflect

As we come closer to Memorial Day, I often think about those incredibly brave individuals who have lost their lives in order to help protect our freedom. They made the ultimate sacrifice to help us preserve the liberties we often take for granted. There are many men and women returning to civilian life burdened and battered by the trauma of war. Their families also feel the psychological effects of having a loved one on in battle.

I think of this and I wonder, “What can I do to show my appreciation? How can I help?”


And then a new partnership presented itself, giving me the chance to give back! For the past several months, I have had the incredible opportunity to help out many post-combat veterans through what I know best, music! With a team of music therapists from Roman Music Therapy Services, I have been able to act in support of a new clinical program called “Home Base.”

Dedicated to Healing

Home Base is a program run through Massachusetts General Hospital (M.G.H.) and the Red Sox Foundation. It involves an intensive 2-week clinical program to help post-combat veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI(Traumatic Brain Injury) and other psychological disorders brought on by their experiences. The range and intensity of therapies and interventions in this program are vast. Music was brought on board to help transition the veterans and their families into the program.

By leading two group drumming experiences per clinical period, we have been able to help promote community by building trust and camaraderie among the veterans, families and staff members. Simultaneously, we are working to reduce the anxiety and stress related to being part of such a program. Since February of this year, we have served 30 veterans, 21 family members and 6 staff members.

Serving Veterans and Families

At the end of each drum circle, we invite the group members to provide us with their reflections on the experience by writing them down on index cards. The following quotes are from the veterans and their family members:

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  • “Cohesive; Barrier crossing”
  • “Total transformation of everyone’s attitude. Everyone was closer and more open.”
  • “This was a powerful way to see how we (strangers) can work together.”
  • “This was a great way to bring the group together right off the bat. Perfect icebreaker. Also really nice to play some music again.”
  • “Fun! Great way to get to know each other. Fun to watch other people have fun.”
  • “Nice to be able to share a side with family that isn’t all gloom and doom.”

While our contribution to the overall treatment plan could be considered small, the feedback from those experiencing these musical moments shows that it provides an essential amount of balance and relief during their strenuous journeys. As far as I’m concerned, I am honored to provide a service that can bring smiles and laughter to people that are fighting and coping with a very real and difficult battle everyday.

Music Therapy and the Armed Forces

Music Therapy’s formal development as a profession is indeed linked with World War I and II efforts to heal and spur on the troops with music. Though not the only catalyst for formalizing the training and methodologies for administering music as a healing modality, the connection is important.

The white paper “Music Therapy and Military Populations” offers the history of this connection and the state of music therapy in the armed forces today.

Music, Memories, and Story


This week in honor of the Memorial Day holiday, Music Therapist Katie Bagley asked her elder group on a memory care unit if any of them had served in the armed forces. Many raised their hands. A few had family members who had served. But, all of these individuals ranging in age 70-90 had experienced the atmosphere of WWII. Aside from being at war, the atmosphere of that time included songs that held the country together, kept the members of the armed forces going, and evoked national pride and belonging.

With this group, Katie sang songs representative of the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard: Anchors Aweigh, From The Halls of Montezuma, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder, Anchors Aweigh, and Caisson Song. She also sang favorites like God Bless America, My Country Tis of Thee, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, and Boogie Woogie Bugel Boy.

Unlike any other songs, these selections stir up a good feeling. “It’s a national pride and morale that takes over the room,” says Katie Bagley. And that good feeling is something that is important to tap into, for though the memory challenges prevail, the music connects them with their community. And it honors their story.

Music Therapy and Mental Health

Meaning of LifeMusic therapy has been recognized and supported in the mental health field for many years. In the early history of music therapy, musicians worked with veterans from World War 2 playing songs in hospitals or rehabs. These musicians and surrounding staff saw noticeable changes in the veterans mood and affect. The field has grown largely since then, working with a range of demographics, disabilities, in such settings as; mental health, special education, hospice, nursing homes, and hospitals.

One study done in Finland, at the Music Therapy Clinic for Research and Training, was conducted with 79 adult participants ranging in age from 18 – 50. Each participant had been diagnosed with unipolar depression. The participants were given a baseline psychiatric assessment at the beginning of treatment and at a 3 month and 6 month follow up to assess progress. There were two groups of patients, one group received music therapy and standard care, and one group received standard care solely which consisted of 5-6 short term psychotherapy interventions, medications, and counseling.

The participants receiving individual music therapy treatment were encouraged to express themselves musically through improvisation and playing with a psychodynamic music therapy approach which involves using the exploration of instruments, to encourage self-expression. In this approach of music therapy, the therapist and participant create a relationship through the music to delve deeper into the relationship. Participants in this study received 20 bi-weekly individual music therapy sessions for 60 minutes each. Participants were offered various choices of percussive instruments, and encouraged to improvise by themselves and with the music therapist.

In this study, participants receiving music therapy showed greater improvements in all of the areas assessed; depression symptoms,  anxiety symptoms, and general functioning. The results concluded that music therapy, was an effective method of treatment along with standard care when confronting depression.

How does music therapy work as part of mental health treatment?

Music therapy in the means of mental health relies on music for communication and expression. Music therapy looks beyond verbal expression, allowing participants to find their voice in the music, in a time where it may not be easy to find the right words to say.  Music therapy in mental health settings includes interventions such as musical improvisation, song writing, music listening, and lyric analysis.

Why does it work?

Music therapy uses a participants personal relationship with music to access and create meaningful experiences. The American Music Therapy Association lists possible ways that music therapy can reinforce positive outcomes in the treatment of mental health needs.

  • Explore personal feelings and therapeutic issues such as self-esteem or personal insight
  • Make positive changes in mood and emotional states
  • Have a sense of control over life through successful experiences
  • Enhance awareness of self and environment
  • Express oneself both verbally and non-verbally
  • Develop coping and relaxation skills
  • Support healthy feelings and thoughts
  • Improve reality testing and problem solving skills
  • Interact socially with others
  • Develop independence and decision making skills
  • Improve concentration and attention span
  • Adopt positive forms of behavior
  • Resolve conflicts leading to stronger family and peer relationships

Music therapy should not replace standard care, or psychotherapy, however the research provided proves that music therapy is a positive addition to standard care, increasing a person’s opportunities for living a successful and fulfilling life.


Erikka, J., Punkanen, M., Fachner, J., Ala-Ruona, E., Pontio, I., Tervaniemi, M., Vanhala, M., & Gold, C. (2011). Individual music therapy for depression: randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry , Retrieved from

Music Therapy in Mental Health – Evidence-Based Practice Support (2021). Retrieved from

Music Therapy for Adults with Mental Health and Substance Use Conditions (2021). Retrieved from