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Hispanic Heritage Month: Talking about Music, Music Therapy and Sharing Experiences in an Inpatient Setting

  • September 28, 2023
  • Diverse populations, Patients and Families, Treatment

During Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 - Oct. 15) we celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from the Caribbean, Spain, Mexico and Central and South America. I would like to start this article by noting that I am not an expert in music therapy, so my perspective is quite narrow. However, I will share some background, history, my own experience and resources to hopefully spark some ideas for you to incorporate music from this rich and diverse cultural collective. I would like to share my experience with staff members and families in the acute patient unit of the Mental Health Unit at Santa Clara Hospital.

Music therapy: a little bit of history

Music has long been an integral and essential aspect of human life. Music allows individuals to subjectively experience changes in emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. It is also a concept known and recognized for its therapeutic purposes, having long been associated with healing, mental health, medicine, and therapy. However, there is considerable cultural variation in the social interpretations of music (Saarikallio 2012; McClellan 2000).

The concept of music for therapeutic purposes began in ancient Greece with Greek philosophers. Homer recommended music to relieve emotions such as sorrow, fear, and fatigue (Cook 1981). Pythagoras of Samos believed that health in daily life could be obtained through music. Pythagoras also demonstrated that the right sequence of sounds and pitches could change behavioral patterns and accelerate the healing process (Thompson and Schlaug 2015; Cook 1981). Similarly, Plato’s theory of “correspondence” stated that music could have a positive effect on the soul (Pelosi 2010), while Aristotle believed that the body and soul could be affected by melodies, harmonies, and instruments (Cook 1981). These philosophical ideas of music formed the basis of the practice of music therapy.

According to Densmore (1927), Native American healing practices often employed rhythm within music to treat physical and emotional disorders. In other cultural contexts, disease and illness are attributed to supernatural causes. Shamans include music in their ceremonies. Shamanic traditions use music to create a state of reality. Altered states of consciousness connect the physical and spiritual worlds “to create physical and spiritual healing (Wheeler 2015).”

Music therapy today

While musical practices have been documented, new research studies have begun to evaluate the effects of music on individuals (mind and body) (Alvin 1975; Cook 1981). This research has provided the foundation for the development and growth of music therapy. Music therapy is a clinical and evidence-based music intervention that seeks specific changes in an individual’s physical, cognitive, and social well-being (AMTA).

Music therapy is defined as “the use of sounds and music within an evolving relationship between patient and therapist to support and encourage physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual well-being” (Bunt and Stige 2014). It not only consists of a board-certified music therapist and a fundamental understanding of music but also requires an individualized musical selection that is developed uniquely for the patient. Music therapy has been used to support the treatment of a variety of illnesses and conditions such as trauma, addiction, Alzheimer’s, brain injuries, physical rehabilitation, emotional support, and chronic pain (AMTA). One example of music therapy can be seen in Batt-Rawden and DeNora’s (2005) Music and Health Promotion Project, which explored the links between musicking, well-being, and health. Study participants were involved in developing music compilations. They reported listening to music and musicking were important tools in “enhancing well–being and ‘wellness’ and offering resources for recovery and quality of life in the face of illness.”

Music therapy in Hispanic culture

In my experience working with psychiatric patients in acute units, we investigated the effects of group music therapy on adherence to psychotropic regimens in patients with schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar and schizoaffective disorder. The study, which involved 85 adults, confirmed the benefits of eight group music therapy sessions for those patients. The study was published in the Acta Psiquiátrica y Psicológica de América Latina. (Mar 2019, Vol. 65 Issue 1, p54-64. 11p).

A particular characteristic of the Hispanic/Latino community is that many young people still listen to the classics, connecting generations or ages.

Here are some of the songs we incorporated into our sessions.

  • “Alfonsina y el mar” (Mercedes Sosa)
  • “Ay si, si” (Alfredo Rolando Ortiz)
  • “Cancion Para Un Amigo” | Palito Ortega)
  • “Chiquitita” (Abba) “Egoísmo” (Julio Miranda)
  • “El breve espacio en que no estás” (Pablo Milanés)
  • “El Camino de la Vida” (Héctor Ochoa)
  • “Eres tu, El vendedor” (Mocedades)
  • “La Gota Fria” (Emiliano Zuleta)
  • “Mama Vieja” (los Visconti)
  • “Pueblito Viejo” (Jose A Morales)
  • “Un Millon de Amigos” (Roberto Carlos)
  • “Zamba de mi Esperanza” (Luis Profili)


  1. Alvin, Juliette. 1975. Music therapy. Hutchinson.
  2. American Music Therapy Association. “What is Music therapy?” (
  3. Batt-Rawden, Kari Bjerke, Tia DeNora, Even Ruud. (2005) Music Listening and Empowerment in Health Promotion: A Study of the Role and Significance of Music in Everyday Life of the Long-term Ill, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 14:2, 120-136
  4. Bunt, L. and Stige, B. 2014. Music Therapy: An art beyond words, second edition. New York, NY: Routledge, pg 18.
  5. Castilla RC, Perel JM. 2004. Group music therapy and medication compliance: A controlled study on patients with chronic psychotic disorders. World Journal of Biological Psychiatry 2004; Vol. 5, issue Supp 1:152.
  6. Castilla‐Puentes RC, Valero J, Vargas J, Gongora O, Pava C, Perel J. 2002. Music therapy and medication compliance in psychotic patients. 155th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. 2002 May 18‐23; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
  7. Cook, Janet D. 1981. “The Therapeutic use of Music: A Literature Review.” In Nursing Forum. Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 252-266. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  8. Densmore, Frances. 1927. “The Use of Music in the Treatment of the Sick by American Indians.” The Musical Quarterly, 13(4), 555-565.
  9. McClellan, Randall. 2000. The Healing Forces of Music: History, Theory, and Practice. iUniverse.
  10. Pelosi, Francesco. 2010. Plato on Music, Soul and Body. Cambridge University Press.
  11. Saarikallio, Suvi. 2012. Development and Validation of the Brief Music in Mood Regulation Scale (B-MMR). Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 30(1), 97–105.
  12. Thompson, W.F., and Gottfried Schlaug. 2015. “The Healing Power of Music.” Scientific American Mind, 26(2), 32-42.
  13. Wheeler, Barbara L. 2015. Music Therapy Handbook. Guilford Publications.


Ruby C. Castilla-Puentes, M.D., Dr.P.H., M.B.A.

Member, APA Council on Communications
Member, APA Spanish Language Communications Working Group

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