Music Therapy: 5 Questions Answered!

Music Therapy

When I started working as a music therapist almost 20 years ago, very few people had heard about music therapy. And those who had really didn’t understand what it was all about. Although knowledge and understanding has increase over the last two decades, there are often misunderstanding about what we do and how we do it. Here are 5 common questions about music therapy.

Is any music music therapy?

Definitely not! I like to say that all music can be beneficial or even therapeutic but not all music is music therapy. Listening to musical entertainers or CDs could look similar at first glance. But when we look deeper the differences become more apparent. 

The music in CDs or music sing-a-long videos includes predetermined songs. It also has a set tempo and range. But music therapists work in the moment and adjust their music to maximize engagement and success for our clients. We will often change our planned songs to better support the emotional needs of the client. Or we will change the key to help a client sing along in their vocal range. Or to speed up and slow down so a client can successfully sing along.

Musical entertainers learn their set and much like CDs will perform in the keys and tempos that work best for them. Good entertainers will also be more effective at engaging their audience. In music therapy, music is chosen purposefully to work on the goals. This could be using a soothing and familiar song to calm an agitated client. This could be writing a song about the steps involved when showering to help a client gain greater independence. Or this could be writing a song with a client to help them express their feelings.

Can any musician facilitate music therapy?

The answer is no. Music therapists are accomplished musicians. However, additional steps required to become a certified music therapist. Firstly, a prospective music therapist must complete university education at recognized music therapy program. Most education programs have a strong emphasis on psychology as well as learning how to use music to support the goals of a client.

Next, a music therapy student must complete a 1000 hour clinical internship. A certified music therapist supervises this process. During this time, a music therapy intern puts into practice the theory gained in their formal education. Lastly, to receive the MTA credentials of Certified Music Therapist, a music therapy intern must write and pass a board exam!

Do you teach clients how to play instruments? 

The answer to this is sometimes. The goal for music lessons is to learn to play an instrument. It would also involve learning about music theory and how to read music. Music therapy, on the other hand, uses music and rhythm for a non-musical goal. The goal of music therapy, rather than learning to play an instrument, could be to improve mental health, increase a developmental skills, regain functioning through a rehabilitation program. Sometimes, learning to play an instrument is used to work on a different goal. For example a client working on fine motor coordination could work on playing the piano. Or a client working on breath control could learn a recorder. But it is important to note that the goal is not to learn the instrument in music therapy. The goal is the skill that is being working on by playing an instrument.

Sometimes, a client with a disability may wish to learn to play an instrument. Due to a variety of possible reasons, they may not well suited for traditional lessons. Or perhaps tried in the past and were unsuccessful. For these clients we offer adapted music lessons which is different than music therapy because the goal is to learn an instrument. We use our skills and knowledge as a music therapist to provide learning opportunities in a creative or different manner. We have helped clients who are non-verbal, who struggle with ADHD, and who have physical challenges learn to play an instrument.

Are iPod programs music therapy?

Definitely not! Several years ago the Music & Memory program launched iPod music for seniors with dementia. This program was not created by a music therapist. But I will circle back to what I mentioned in question 1, all music can be beneficial or even therapeutic but not all music is not music therapy. iPod programs offer musical experience to seniors which we as music therapists know can be a great thing.

The iPod program raised some concerns in the music therapy community. Learning headphones and listening to music is an isolating experience. In contrast, music therapy is an experience that increases connection between a client and the therapist and/or other group members. Additionally, music is a highly emotional experience. Sometimes a senior could listen to a song on their iPod that triggers big emotions. When they are sitting in their rooms they don’t have someone to support them through that emotional experience. On the other hand, music therapists are trained to help a client resolve any upsetting emotions before ending a session.

Do clients just listen to you play music?

The answer here is usually not. More often music therapy sessions are interactive experiences where the therapist and client participate in musical activities or experiences together. This can include singing with favourite or familiar songs or playing a variety of different instruments. Sometimes clients will involve movement, especially when working on motor goals. Clients may participate in improvisation – where the client and therapist make up music together. And other times clients will participate in song writing exercises as a way to express their emotions.

Sometimes clients may seem unable to actively participate. However, the therapist is skilled at adapting musical activities, songs or even instruments. This is to support independent participation and success. Other times the therapist may provide physical assistance to help a client participate.

But sometimes active music listening is appropriate and even preferred by a client. Active listening can be helpful to calm the mind and body at the end of a session. Some clients enjoy listening but don’t enjoy singing. Listening to familiar music can have similar benefits to mood as singing or playing along. Lastly, music listening can benefit those receiving music in palliative care.

By Heidi Flynn, RP, MTA Registered Psychotherapist, Certified Music Therapist