It’s almost universally recognized that listening to music can make you feel better, whether you’re belting out the lyrics to a favorite song or playing a calming instrumental soundtrack in the background to help you concentrate. Music therapy is a clinical practice that takes this reality further – as a form of complementary treatment for patients coping with physical or mental health issues. For music therapists, there’s a lot more to the practice than blasting a song they like. Their goal as a therapist is to develop music-based therapeutic interventions personalized to an individual client’s needs.

What Does a Music Therapist Do?

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Types of Activities in Music Therapy

The activities used in music therapy can range from the hands-on – with clients utilizing musical instruments in improvised self-expression – to more laidback activities such as simply listening to soothing music. Singing, moving to music, talking about perceptions and experiences of music and even learning to play an instrument can be part of the therapeutic interventions used in the field of music therapy. However, this occupation encompasses so much more than giving music or singing lessons. Every activity used in music therapy is developed intentionally by the music therapist as part of a clinical treatment plan used to help with symptoms of mental and physical health conditions and meet goals.

The activities used in a music therapy session can depend on several factors, including the patient’s physical and cognitive capabilities, the patient’s level of comfort with musical expression and the treatment environment.

The Role of the Music Therapist

It’s well established that many musical artists and performers find emotional fulfillment through making music, but what about individuals who don’t have musical training? Part of a music therapist’s job is to guide the client, who might know nothing about reading music or playing an instrument, in engaging in therapeutic musical self-expression activities. The most important job duty music therapists perform is developing these activities and experiences with a purpose. Although music therapy often is fun, the objective is more than entertainment or mere distraction. Depending on the client’s individual needs, the goal of music therapy might be to facilitate impulse control, improve self-esteem and cognitive abilities, adapt to difficult life changes or find non-pharmacological methods of soothing anxiety and reducing pain.

Despite the emphasis on music, a music therapist’s focus isn’t on notes, chords or technique, but rather on the client and his or her needs. Communicating with the client is essential for building a relationship, determining effective and appropriate treatment plans and helping the client to see progress and results. After all, until you understand the client’s feelings, concerns and problems, you can only guess at what activities will be effective. Getting to know the client – through interacting with them in approachable and compassionate ways to develop rapport, asking insightful questions and really listening to the answers – is what allows music therapists to develop a personalized treatment plan. Throughout your time with the client, you will observe his or her responses to the musical experiences you facilitate and document them through evaluations, case summaries, progress notes and adjustments to the treatment plan.

As part of your responsibilities in providing musical experiences, you might draw on your own talents in singing or playing musical instruments or help the client understand the basics so they can perform these activities themselves.

Becoming Trained in Music Therapy

Because the clinical practice of music therapy involves both musical performance abilities and a knowledge of therapeutic interventions, you need specific training in both subjects of study. Neither a major in music nor a major in psychology is sufficient. An approved music therapy bachelor’s degree program offers the best of both worlds, with coursework in music theory accounting for 45 percent of the curriculum, clinical foundations accounting for 15 percent and specialized music therapy classes another 15 percent, according to the American Music Therapy Association. These programs complete the curriculum with studies in disabilities and in the biological, behavioral and social sciences. A big part of your curriculum as a music therapy student would be clinical experience. After completing your degree, you need to pass a national certification exam before you can use the mandatory Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC) designation.

Most music therapists hold a bachelor’s degree in music therapy, but 11 percent of music therapists earn a post-baccalaureate certificate and 13 percent earn a master’s degree.

Additional Resources

What Populations Does a Music Therapist Work With?

What Makes Someone a Good Music Therapist?

What Is the Difference Between Music Therapy and Music Education?

What Are Some Other Careers Related to Music Therapy?