Music Therapy | Program Introduction

Music therapy is a specialization within the field of counseling. It uses a combination of music and instruments to help patients heal from trauma and substance abuse or cope with other mental or behavioral issues. Most positions in this field require at least a bachelor's degree and the music therapist-board certified credential (MT-BC). Prospective students should carefully research programs to ensure curricula meet quality standards and prepare graduates for the certification examination.

This program guide provides a comprehensive overview of music therapy, including its history and basic principles. The guide further explores what music therapists do, available degree options, and important program factors to consider in your research.

What is Music Therapy?

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Music therapy's history traces back to Greek mythology, Native American culture, and early philosophy. Ruling authorities and healers have always used music to alleviate stress and heal physical or mental ailments. Music therapy did not gain a strong academic or professional foothold until the 1940s, when Michigan State University established the first academic program. This led to other schools following suit and the creation of professional organizations advocating for industry standards.

Nowadays, music therapy's primary role is still to alleviate memory issues, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions; however, music therapy now occupies a more formal role in healthcare settings.

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Music therapy typically uses multiple musical styles and instruments to help patients with mental health issues and behavioral problems. It may also help children with autism develop reading and language skills. Music therapists assess the needs of their patients and develop treatment plans involving singing, dancing, or listening to music. A patient's treatment varies greatly depending on their specific issues and needs.

Music therapy does not usually replace other types of therapy or medications. Typically, music therapists work alongside other medical professionals, using music therapy as a tool in addition to other treatments.

Differences Between a Music Therapy Program and a General Counseling or Therapy Program

Music therapy is a specialty within the field of general counseling and therapy. Students may earn a bachelor's or master's in each of these fields at most universities. For music therapy, a bachelor's degree is more common because it is the minimum requirement to practice. However, earning a master's may lead to career advancement opportunities or higher earning potential. It is more common to see master's degrees for general counseling and therapy because many positions require a master's to practice.

Programs for each of these areas include introductory courses in counseling theories and techniques to develop essential clinical treatment skills. However, general counseling or therapy degrees typically include courses focusing on diagnosis and common medications used in treatment. Music therapy programs build on counseling basics by focusing on developing musical skills and techniques, allowing professionals to apply music in therapeutic ways.

Read on to learn more about the differences and similarities between programs.

Sample Coursework

The curriculum for a bachelor's in music therapy typically contains some similar courses to a general counseling or therapy program. A few topics which may overlap include introductory courses in theory, ethics, evaluation and assessment, and techniques in counseling. These courses aim to provide a basic foundation of knowledge in counseling. A music therapy program then incorporates subject-specific coursework -- including music theory and composition -- to develop essential skills and techniques.

The table below highlights a few common courses found in general counseling programs and music therapy programs. It provides an idea of what students may learn, but specific courses vary by school.

General Counseling or Therapy Program

  • Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories
  • Techniques in Counseling
  • Ethics in Counseling
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Evaluation and Assessment
  • Research and Statistics
  • Group Counseling

Music Therapy Program

  • Music History
  • Music Theory
  • Musical Composition
  • Psychology of Music
  • Improvisation for Therapy

What Can You Do With a Music Therapy Degree?

A music therapist uses a combination of singing, listening to music, playing musical instruments, and moving to music to treat patients dealing with a variety of conditions. Other job aspects may include coordinating therapy sessions with caregivers, reception staff, supervisors, or other therapists.

Music therapy aims to end negative behaviors by easing stress, helping patients focus their energy to change their mood, and relieving tension. Among its many emotional benefits, music may reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, improve respiration, and relax muscle tension.

What Does Music Therapy Help With?

The primary goals of music therapy are to relieve stress, explore new ways to communicate, and ease muscle tension. Therapists use a variety of styles to achieve results. For instance, they may use slower tempo music to help patients enter a calm or meditative state. While music therapy is effective, it is typically not considered a replacement for other therapy or medications.

Where Do Music Therapists Work?

Music therapists work in a variety of settings. Below, you can find a comprehensive list of common workplaces for these professionals.

  • Psychiatric or medical hospitals
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Private practice
  • Schools
  • Correctional centers
  • Rehabilitative facilities
  • Hospice programs
  • Community mental health centers
  • Drug and alcohol programs
  • Outpatient clinics

How Much Do Music Therapists Make?

A music therapist earns an average annual salary of $41,327. Earning potential varies depending on the therapist's level of experience and education. The table below details the average salary for each experience level.

Music Therapy Degree Programs

A music therapist's level of education may impact their career and earning potential. Practicing as a music therapist typically requires at least a bachelor's in music therapy and MT-BC certification. Many schools also offer master's or Ph.D. programs. A master's is more common, but the availability of Ph.D programs is increasing.

Online Music Therapy Degree Programs

The details of an online program may vary by school. Most online programs use a synchronous or asynchronous format. A synchronous program allows students to complete most coursework requirements online, but may entail occasional on-campus visits or signing in to attend online classes at a scheduled time. Asynchronous programs offer the most flexibility, allowing students to complete coursework at any time of day and from any location.

Online learning is ideal for busy professionals wanting to pursue an education while maintaining other responsibilities. Online learning allows practicing musical therapists to pursue a master's degree while building their skills in the field. A master's is not required to work in music therapy, but it may increase earning potential.

Factors to Consider When Selecting a Music Therapy Program

While researching music therapy programs, prospective students should consider several factors, including accreditation, cost, and whether schools offer courses online. Using these factors as guidelines helps prospective students select a program that aligns with their career goals, fits their budget, and prepares them for a career in music therapy.


Most universities possess either regional or national accreditation. Regional accreditation is typically considered more prestigious and focuses on degree-granting schools within a specific geographic area. National accreditation applies to vocational schools located anywhere in the nation. To apply for accreditation, universities must submit program information. Schools undergo periodic review to maintain their status.

Accreditation is an important factor to consider because a degree from an unaccredited university may not qualify individuals to practice as music therapists. Also, students must graduate from an American Music Therapy Association-approved program to earn certification from the Certification Board for Music Therapists.


Program costs vary by school, but public universities tend to be more affordable than private schools. Other factors impacting cost include state residency status and whether students attend programs on campus or online. Many schools offer lower tuition rates to in-state residents and for online programs because they do not include extra facility or parking fees.

On-Campus vs. Online

Traditional on-campus programs allow students to interact with peers and may work best for students that need a structured classroom environment; however, on-campus programs may not work for busy professionals. Online learning allows students to complete coursework virtually without commuting to campus. This arrangement gives students the opportunity to earn an advanced degree while maintaining other responsibilities.

Take the Next Step in Pursuing Your Passion Today and Explore Music Therapy Degree Programs

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