Can Music Therapy Help Soldiers with PTSD?

woman listening to music

woman listening to musicFor current and former members of the military who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one of the central difficulties of the disorder is the ability to manage, or down-regulate, their negative emotions. Among other symptoms, people with PTSD are prone to being triggered by stimuli in their environments that remind them of past traumatic events, resulting in escalating negative emotional responses.

What if a tool to help people with PTSD regulate their emotions was as accessible as a smartphone or portable music player?

This is a question being addressed by a study getting underway later this year, led by Drexel University’s Joke Bradt, PhD. Bradt, an associate professor in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, is a board certified music therapist and accomplished researcher on the efficacy of music therapy. She has teamed up with collaborators from the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for this new study. The study just received funding from the GRAMMY Foundation® Grant Program, one of only four scientific research projects receiving this award this year.

This project will be the first neuroimaging investigation of the impact of music listening on cortical brain structures associated with emotional regulation in service members with PTSD.

“We know from neuroscience research that music impacts specific areas in the brain that can help with emotional regulation,” Bradt says. “However, we don’t have any brain imaging studies yet that have examined the impact of music on these brain areas specifically in people with PTSD.”

Bradt and her collaborators plan to enroll a small group of active duty service members and veterans with PTSD, with or without mild traumatic brain injury, in the study, as well as a control group of service members without PTSD. Their aim is to measure impact of listening to music for emotional management, as well as measuring and comparing with the impact of pairing music listening with training from a music therapist in how to use the tunes to regulate emotions. All participants will have an initial session working with a music therapist to develop a personal playlist of music that is comforting or soothing without evoking strong emotional associations or memories, and they will receive an iPod with their personal playlist. After this initial session, all of the participants will have three baseline brain images taken using EEG and fMRI technologies—while listening to their preferred music playlist, while listening to white noise and in silence.

Then, the music listening intervention group will be encouraged to continue to use the playlist to help with regulating emotions. The music therapy intervention group, however, will have several more sessions working with the board-certified music therapist to develop specific strategies for how to use music to manage their emotional responses. They will also have regular check-ins with their music therapist.

With a long-term follow-up and subsequent brain scans, Bradt aims to examine whether music listening can enhance cortical connectivity, hippocampal connectivity and hippocampal volume. Furthermore, she will explore whether the effects, if any, are larger in participants who received the music therapy emotional regulation training than those who did not. Her team will also track the extent to which participants continue using music for emotional regulation over the 12-month span of the study.

If the results are positive, and if replicated in subsequent large-scale studies, Bradt says she hopes to expand the program at other centers with other military personnel.

“The applicability is potentially huge in that most people listen to music all the time, but we don’t always use it purposefully to regulate our emotions,” Bradt says. “If we can teach soldiers with PTSD to use music for emotional regulation, they can continue to use it in their home and work situations. “

She adds: “Music therapy alone is not going to solve PTSD, but it will hopefully give soldiers a tool to help them calm down when needed and give them specific techniques to do that—for example, use music to regulate their breathing and focus attention away from a stressful stimulus rather than continuing to attend to a situation that may escalate their emotional reactions.”

The study has not yet begun enrolling participants. It is anticipated to begin later in 2015 and will enroll service members receiving care at the NICoE and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Creative arts therapies, including music therapy, are offered to members of the public in Philadelphia at Drexel’s Parkway Health & Wellness facility. For more information, visit the practice’s website.

Generously funded by The Recording Academy®, the Grammy Foundation Grant Program provides funding annually to organizations and individuals to support efforts that advance the archiving and preservation of the recorded sound heritage of the Americas for future generations, as well as research projects related to the impact of music on the human condition. For more information about the Grammy Foundation Grant Program, visit