What is Music Therapy?

We can trace the idea of music's healing influence on health and behavior back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The earliest known use of the term "music therapy" is attributed to an unknown author of an article entitled "Music Physically Considered," published in 1789 by Columbian Magazine. From the early 1800s to the mid 1900s, music therapy gained support from psychiatrists and researchers, fostering gradual development of the formal clinical profession we know today.

Music therapy embraces the belief that, within the context of a therapeutic relationship with a trained professional, music can help address diverse physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs.

How Does Music Therapy Work?

The human body responds positively to passive music listening, active music making, and shared musical experiences with others. Music therapy operates from these key principles. This alternative therapy method differs from conventional counseling because it makes the patient an active participant in activities and uses music as a facilitator for exploration and discussion.

Music therapy is a powerful tool for healing, but it is not without limitations. It is generally not recommended as a standalone treatment for severe medical or psychiatric issues. Individual music preferences also impact its efficacy. Simply put, different people respond better to the different types of music therapy. Music therapists must take these preferences into consideration.

What Are the Goals of Music Therapy?

In music therapy, professionals may develop both goals and behavioral objectives. Goals represent the long-term desired outcome while behavioral objectives focus on small, specific steps that lead patients toward their goals. Music therapy goals and objectives vary from one patient to the next, depending upon their particular situations and needs. Common examples of long-term goals include:

  • Cognitive Goals

    Improve cognitive skills such as learning, perception, recognition, memory, and impulse control.

  • Motor Development Goals

    Improve motor functioning and skills such as movement, range of motion, muscle control, hand-eye coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility.

  • Sensory Goals

    Improve sensory function, including auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic senses; decrease or distract from pain and discomfort; and stimulate neurochemicals for natural pain relief.

  • Psychological and Emotional Goals

    Increase emotional awareness and appropriate emotional responses; reduce stress, trauma, and anxiety; and enhance self-awareness, decision-making, and coping skills.

  • Social Goals

    Increase social involvement and participation, increase eye contact, help establish and strengthen relationships, combat isolation or withdrawal, and promote a sense of belonging.

  • Communication and Speech Goals

    Increase response to verbal and nonverbal cues, train voice control, improve speech production and fluency, and build vocal strength or endurance.

Music Therapy Techniques

Music therapists employ techniques, tools, and exercises according to the specific needs and goals of their patients. Session activity may also be impacted by the goals of a music therapist's workplace, be it a hospital, school, senior center, veteran clinic, or private practice office. School art therapists may focus primarily on learning disabilities, for example, while hospital music therapists may focus more on rehabilitation and pain management.

Common interactions include assessment and discussion, collaborative selection of music pieces, and guidance in exercise completion

Music therapy techniques generally fall under two categories: active and receptive. Active techniques include those in which a patient participates directly in music making through singing, chanting, playing instruments, composing, or improvising. Receptive techniques include those in which a patient listens and responds to music, such as dancing or lyric analysis. Treatment typically combines active and receptive techniques for maximum benefit.

Therapists utilize the same techniques for children and adults, with appropriate modifications in place to respond to the ages and abilities of each. In listening to and analyzing a piece of music, for example, a child patient might only be asked to consider the broad emotions of the piece, while the adult patient may consider tone, tempo, and the lyrics' meanings.

Music therapists play an active role in the treatment of their patients. Common interactions include assessment and discussion, collaborative selection of music pieces, and guidance in exercise completion. Therapist-patient interaction varies further between individual and group therapy contexts. When working toward a long-term goal with an individual, the therapist develops a one-on-one relationship and focuses on the patient's progress. In a group setting, the therapist often takes on more of a conventional leadership role, directing group activities like chorus or drumming circles.

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Health Issues Treated by Music Therapy

Despite unclear scientific results, many expectant mothers insist on playing classical music to help promote brain development in utero. Some dementia patients with little or no short-term memory can reportedly remember and play piano pieces. Music has a clear and undeniable ability to reach us, so it comes as no surprise that music therapy benefits diverse populations facing a variety of issues.

Best of all, no prior experience or musical talent is needed to participate and benefit. Music therapists help people of all ages and abilities harness the healing power of rhythm and sound.

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How to Become a Music Therapist

This alternative to conventional counseling is a relatively young player in the field of psychiatry, less known by the general public and less represented in college programs. Thus, aspiring professionals often begin their journeys with the same basic question: How do I get into music therapy?

The most straightforward way to a music therapy career involves earning a bachelor's in music therapy, completing 1,200 hours of required fieldwork, and securing board certification. As dedicated undergraduate music therapy programs are relatively few in number, several alternative education and certification pathways exist for individuals who earn their bachelor's degree in a related subject.

Music Therapy Programs

How to Find a Music Therapist

The simplest way to locate certified music therapists in your area is by searching dedicated professional directories like those listed below. Prospective music therapy patients and their families may also want to reach out to their local community, primary healthcare provider, or conventional therapist for personal recommendations and professional referrals.

  • American Music Therapy Association Individual Directory AMTA's member directory allows users to seek out local music therapists. Search filters can narrow results by location, credentials, workplace setting, and populations served.
  • Certified Music Therapist Search The Certification Board for Music Therapists makes it easy for clients to confirm the certification details of local professionals. Search for therapists by full name, certification number, or state.

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