What is Music Therapy? A Primer

by Kimberly on April 2, 2009 · 30 comments

If you are a music therapist, you get asked this question daily. So for my readers interested in learning about music therapy, here is your primer:

Definitions of Music Therapy

Simply put, music therapists use music to help people. We use music and music-based experiences to work on non-musical treatment goals. How we help them depends on who we are working with. Childhood LearningWe can use the rhythm in music to help a stroke victim re-learn how to walk. We can use a structured instrument playing experience to help children with autism learn and practice how to appropriately interact with their friends. We can use music listening to help lower the pain level for a hospital patient.

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “an established healthcare profession that uses music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals of all ages. Music therapy improves the quality of life for persons who are well and meets the needs of children and adults with disabilities or illnesses. Music therapy interventions are designed to:

  • promote wellness
  • manage stress
  • alleviate pain
  • express feelings
  • enhance memory
  • improve communication
  • promote physical rehabilitation”

So there you go.

Where To Find Music Therapy

It is hard to succinctly describe music therapy because there is a lot we do, so many different goals we can work on, and so many different types of clinical populations we can work with. For example:

  • Music therapists truly work “cradle-to-grave.” There are music therapists who work in NICUs (Neonatal Intensive Care Units), those who work in hospices, and everything in between.
  • Music therapists can work in many different facilities: schools, hospitals, treatment centers, rehabilitation centers, private practices, among others.
  • Music therapists can work with diverse clinical populations, including, but not limited to: autism, mental retardation, neurologic insults (e.g. strokes, Parkinson’s disease), and mental illness.
  • Music therapists can co-treat with many other professionals, including: physical therapists, occupational therapists, art therapists, speech-language pathologists, special education teachers, and play therapists.

The main point to remember is that music therapists work on non-musical treatment goals. We assess the patient or client, establish the goals we will target, then design the music interventions to best meet those goals.

Where to Find a Music Therapist

If you want to find a music therapist, visit our certification board. You can search for a music therapist in your area through this website. Keep in mind that any music therapist you work with should have the “MT-BC” credential behind their name. This indicates that the professional you are working with has passed all necessary competencies, including a national board certification exam.

Do you have any questions? Feel free to drop a comment! I will answer your questions.

UPDATE: A fellow music therapist, John Lawrence, recently posted his own answer to the “what is music therapy” question. In essence, we say the same thing, but he has a different way of explaining it that is, for me, fresh.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

KibimPait April 4, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Great site this http://www.neurosong.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

Kimberly April 6, 2009 at 9:26 am

I am happy you found some information and resources that are helpful to you. If you ever have any questions, please ask and I will do my best to help you out.

How to Get Your Ex Back April 8, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I read your posts for quite a long time and must tell you that your posts always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

Nikki April 9, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Is it okay if I refer my readers to your blog post here? It’s such a good resource! 🙂

Kimberly April 10, 2009 at 11:06 am

Thank you, Nikki – I am flattered!

How to Get Six Pack Fast April 15, 2009 at 7:58 am

The topic is quite trendy on the Internet at the moment. What do you pay the most attention to while choosing what to write about?

Kimberly April 15, 2009 at 9:40 am

Right now I simply write about topics and materials and I learning and thinking about that week. Since that is constantly evolving, there is always material to write about. I hope to get to the point where I also use this blog as a forum to answer questions from my readers. Not there, yet, but I will be!

admin October 21, 2009 at 5:49 am

does music therapy helps in memory improvement too!!!

Kimberly October 21, 2009 at 9:29 am

Music therapy can be used to help with memory! One of the most common ways is to use music as a mnemonic device, or as a way to learn nonmusical information. It’s how we learn our ABCs–the structure of the song helps organize and “chunk” the information in a way that makes it easier for us to learn. Thank you for bringing up this important area. ~Kimberly

Nylon String Acoustic Guitar May 26, 2010 at 5:28 am

Terrific work! This is the kind of information that should be shared close to the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

Kimberly May 26, 2010 at 9:04 am

Thank you! I’m glad it was helpful for you. ~Kimberly

Lucy June 18, 2011 at 9:57 am

Thank you very much Kimberly for such a wonderful blog! The information is extremely organized, structured and very clear!
I am not a Music Therapist.
I am a music teacher for KG’s and Grade 1’s and have basic musical education. And my second profession is Practical Psychologist in an Educational System. I already combine Music with Psychology during my lessons, but of course it’s just my way of teaching music,not academic.
I was just curious how far and deep you should be in music to start learning music therapy?

Jonsie1994 January 26, 2012 at 11:10 am

So I’m doing a research paper on my career of interest and I chose Music Therapy. I am just curious if you know of any issues or contoversies music therapists face?
Jonsie1994´s last blog post ..The Music Therapist’s Guide to State Recognition

Kimberly January 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Hello Jonsie–That sounds like an interesting topic! Please email me (see the “contact” page) with specific questions and I can probably help you a little better. Thanks! ~Kimberly

Crista Florence September 26, 2012 at 7:25 am

I have recently been following up on Music therapy. As a lover of music i instantly fell in love with this occupation! I actually read about in the book Sing Me Home. I have actually been thinking about this as a career but yet I have some questions. How many years do you have to go to school to become a music therapist? I also am planning to go to Morehead State University and recieve my associates in General Music because they do not have a music therapy program, what other options could I take in acheiving my goals?

Andrew October 1, 2012 at 10:17 am

Hi Ms. Moore, thanks for what you do!
I have a question about becoming a music therapist. At the college where I work, I have an advisee who is very interested in music therapy. She is a music major, with a psychology minor, but we don’t offer a program specifically for music therapy. Will my student still, with a bachelor’s in these related fields, be able to train and test for certification? Or honestly, should I tell her she needs to find a school that offers this specific program?
Thanks so much for your time,

Kimberly October 5, 2012 at 10:55 am

Hello Andrew,

Great question! She will NOT be able to sit for the national board certification exam unless she has a degree in music therapy. However, she does not need to switch schools now, if that is not an option. She can enroll in an equivalency program following graduation (some programs offer Masters degrees in conjunction with the equivalency). An equivalency program will “fill in the holes” of the coursework she needs to take to be eligible to sit for the exam. Hope this helps! ~Kimberly

K. McCoy June 16, 2015 at 8:37 am

Thank you – thank you!
I am almost done with my AA in Music at my local college, and would like to get my degree in Music Therapy and my poor academic adviser has no clue as for what steps I need to take.
It’s so refreshing to find your blog 🙂

Luna June 24, 2016 at 12:21 pm

I have a music production firm that specializes in coaching and consulting for various media projects that need quality sound, audio and music production. We need to develope a music/therapy to qualify for grants to receive money to help sickle cell ,cancer, AIDS and autistic survivors.

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