What The Heck Is Music Therapy? And Other Questions For A Music Therapist


Since I decided that I wanted to become a music therapist, I have been answering the same question, on nearly a daily basis: What on Earth is music therapy? It’s part and parcel of choosing a career that is not overly well known, explaining to people what exactly it is that you do. A lot of people have never heard of music therapy, and it’s always exciting to be able to share something about which I am so passionate.

The following is a list of questions that are commonly asked about music therapy, compiled for your reading pleasure.

So… What is music therapy?

Music therapy is the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to attain non-musical goals. It is a health profession that addresses physical, emotional, cognitive, educational, social needs, to name a few, through music. Goals are working on in the context of musical interventions, and these goals are then transferred into aspects of the client’s life.

Who do music therapists work with?

Clients can range in age from infancy to seniors, and present at varying ability levels. Clients are seen in the own homes, in a private practice, or within a facility.

Some sites where you might run into a music therapist include: hospitals, long-term care facilities, day programs for person with disabilities, schools, rehabilitation centres, and correctional facilities, just to name a few.

Music therapists don’t just work with people with specific challenges and disabilities, either. You might run into one at the office, leading a group for stress reduction for the employees.

But what does a music therapist do, aside from play music?

When working with a new client, the music therapist would start with an assessment. They would determine what the client’s abilities and skill levels are, their overall well-being, and areas that are in need of the most improvement. They would also determine what the client’s interests are in regards to music. They then set goals for their clients, and design a treatment plan to work on these goals.

Goals can be addressed through various uses of music, depending on what the client is interested in, and what their goal areas are. These might include listening to music, songwriting, improvisation, movement to music, discussion, and song recreation.

Hang on, what’s the difference between a music therapist, and that guy who plays guitar in my grandmother’s nursing home?

Sometimes it hard be tricky to see the difference from an observer’s point of view.

The biggest difference comes down to change in the client. A music volunteer may create change within the client, in the form of brightening their day and cheering them up, but these changes are temporary. A music therapist is looking to create a change that lasts after the session has ended. A music volunteer is entertaining, whereas a music therapist is working on goals.

Both are incredibly important to the people they are working with, but they are focused on different things.

I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Can I still take part in music therapy sessions?

You don’t have to have any musical training to take part in music therapy sessions. The music therapist will work to a person’s natural ability or skill level to develop a session plan that suits them.

So what sort of training does a music therapist have?

In order to become a music therapist in North America, you have to successfully completely an approved college or university program. Following this, you are required to do a one-thousand hour internship under the supervision of another music therapist. Once this is complete, you write an exam to become board certified.

You also need to have a fair amount of musical training. For some programs, this is including within your degree, for others, you do that before applying for the music therapy program. You need to be proficient on guitar, piano, voice, and percussion (and your primary instrument, if it is not one of those), have a good knowledge of music theory and history. In addition, you’ll need to take some psychology and biology classes.

Is there research to support music therapy, or are you making this all up?

There is tonnes of research to support music therapy. There are whole journals dedicated just to the subject. Try looking at the Journal for Music Therapy, the Canadian Journal for Music Therapy, your university catalog, or Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy.

This is really interesting! Why haven’t I heard of this before?

Music therapy is fairly new. Though writings about the healing powers of music have been around since Aristotle and Plato, what we know it as today only began in World War One and World War Two, when musicians were being brought into the hospitals of injured veterans. The first university program only opened it’s doors in 1944.

As a result, many people still don’t take it seriously. They assume you’re just entertainment or a teacher of some sort. But the profession is growing, more people are taking note of what it can do for people, and it’s beginning to make news headlines.

Spreading the word on what music therapy is, and what it can do is part of working within this profession, and that is what I hope I have managed to do with this article.