Music IN Therapy vs. Music AS Therapy: A Student Perspective

by Kimberly on February 22, 2012 · 10 comments

The Background Story…

It was only a few weeks ago that I first heard the question on how music therapy works: is it music AS therapy? or music IN therapy?

A day later, I read a tweet from music therapy student Kyle Fleming that said “Heated discussion about music in v. as therapy. Pretty interesting blog topic for someone?”

It was too much. I couldn’t resist. I invited Kyle to share his thoughts on the topic, based on the “heated discussion” he had. Next week, tune in again as I weigh in on the topic. In addition, I invite you to share YOUR thoughts in the comments section–do you think music works AS therapy or IN therapy?

Kyle on Music IN Therapy vs. Music AS Therapy

In my Psych of Music class the other day, we got into a very heated discussion about the definition of music therapy; more specifically, as music therapists, do we use music IN therapy, or music AS therapy?

It’s interesting to me how a simple preposition change can completely change the perception of something, but in this case, the decision between “in” and “as” is a very distinct one. From my understanding of the terms, the answer to the debate of “in” versus “as” lies in how the music is being used to attain the therapeutic goals.

While researching for a counseling psychology paper, I found many articles that featured psychologists using music activities in their sessions. The goals that were being attained were being approached using a variety of techniques, with music being one of those techniques utilized. In this case, the music was being used IN therapy, as the main focus of the sessions weren’t to tailor the music to get specific results, but rather to use music as a means of rapport building to further work toward this client’s goals.

Conversely, when using music AS therapy, a music therapist is taking all aspects of the music into consideration in working toward a client’s goals. The music therapist takes timbre, rhythm, tempo, instrumentation, melody, and a host of other musical elements into consideration when deciding how to use music in a session. Each musical intervention needs to be justified and shown to benefit the client in some way. Something as subtle as what type of beat is being used (“four on the floor” dance beats compared to an “oom-pah-pah” waltz beat) can induce a physiological reaction that will either inhibit or assist a client in his or her therapeutic goals.

I sit in the camp of music therapists using music as therapy, because if we look at the works of Gaston and Unkefer & Thaut, there really isn’t an opportunity for music to be a passive part of our treatment. Unkefer & Thaut, in their taxonomy on mental health, talk about music being used in performance, as relaxation, and for recreation, among other things. Gaston discusses similar uses of music; for example, music can be used as a non-verbal form of communication, a non-threatening form of intimacy, and, in performance, can induce feelings of gratification and accomplishment, among other things.

In all of these definitions, the music is an integral part to the therapy. The client is actively participating in the music making, while the therapist is actively manipulating, shaping, teaching, and healing by considering the music how it is used. Music therapy is not passive. Using music in therapy is not therapeutic; using music as therapy is.

About the Author: Kyle Fleming is a senior music therapy major at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA. He was recently elected President of the American Music Therapy Association for Students (AMTAS). Follow him on Twitter at @kf_music or send him an email at


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