• Jennifer

What Is Music Therapy?

When I tell people I'm a music therapist, most people don't know what I mean. Some people think they know what I mean, ("So you play music to make people feel better?" Technically true, in the way that a pharmacist uses medication to make people feel better-- in other words, it's a lot more complicated than that) and some make wild guesses.

Actually, let me share a couple of the stranger guesses I've gotten because they're pretty great:

1. "So, do you work with pets? Like, who have anxiety?"

I don't actually recommend giving your earbuds to a dog. My dog would either ignore them or chew on them.

2. "So... you're a therapist for bad musicians?"

3. "Is that like, 'Take two Beethovens and call me in the morning'?"

(Please note that me posting the above image does not mean I think you should stop taking prescribed medications in favor of music, even in the form of the tiniest of phonographs)

All joking aside, most people either ask me what music therapy is, or try to pretend they already know by making a vague comment about how "Music is awesome" and then hurriedly change the subject.

If you're worried about looking foolish for not knowing what music therapy is, don't be! It's a relatively new profession that is still growing. I only heard about it myself for the first time in high school. And I actually love explaining what I do, so I'm never disappointed when someone asks me to do just that.

But if you've ever been too intimidated to ask, this is the post for you!

What Is Music Therapy?

First, I'll let you see this neat video made by some of my fellow Utah Music Therapists.

Music Therapy is actually a little hard to define-- any therapist you ask will answer a little differently. It's a broad field that does a lot of things.

The classic definition, according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) is "Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program."

That's a bit complicated, so let's step back and unpack it.


"Clinical" means that it has to do with treating patients. So, in other words, music therapy is being used to treat issues that individuals have-- whether that's depression, a stroke, autism, pain management, or something else. We're trying to make something better.


AKA SCIENCE!!! Evidence-based means that this is backed up by research. People have done, and continue to do, tests and research and studies in order to prove that this stuff actually works.

Music Interventions

An intervention is an activity with a purpose. (We'll talk about that purpose in the section on goals) Interventions can involve making music, listening to music, moving to music, composing music, or improvising.

Individualized Goals

Anytime a music therapist is working with a client, they are helping the client work towards a goal. That goal could be cognitive (learn to recognize colors) or emotional (process the stages of grief) or physical (improve hand-eye co-ordination) or behavioral (practice appropriate social skills) or related to communication (improve vocabulary and annunciation).

Therapeutic Relationship

In other words, someone that you have a contract with and are paying for services from.

Credentialed Professional

There are some people who, quite innocently, call themselves music therapists but aren't. Generally these are people who volunteer to play music at geriatric centers or the like. Those services have their value, but a credentialed music therapist is someone who is certified to do their job. They've taken the board exam, they've put in the work and study, they are held to standards of practice, they're allowed to write "MT-BC" after their name. (Music Therapist, Board Certified) That's who you want to hire.

An Approved Music Therapy Program

The minimum requirements to become a music therapist are:

  • A Bachelor's Degree in Music Therapy, through an AMTA approved program, which includes classes in psychology, anatomy, music theory

  • 1200 hours of clinical training, including a supervised 6 month internship

  • Passing a board exam

  • Earning 100 continuing education credits every five year period in order to maintain the certification

I got my degree at Utah State University, which has a pretty good program if you are reading this with an eye to becoming a music therapist yourself.

Music Therapy vs Music Lessons

I think it might be helpful to demonstrate what a music therapist is or is not by a comparison with music teachers. What is the difference between, say, a piano teacher and a music therapist who uses the piano?

Well, a lot. They studied different things in college, they have different skill sets. But the biggest difference in execution is that they have different goals.

A piano teacher is trying to help a student learn how to play the piano so that the student can learn more about music. Or perform in a recital. Or play hymns in church. (A common reason for piano lessons here in Utah) There are other benefits (increased confidence, improved fine motor skills), but those are a secondary concern.

A music therapist is trying to help their client meet a very different kind of goal. Helping a client with limited hand control improve their fine motor skills. Helping a client with autism practice interacting with other people. Helping a perfectionist become more comfortable with trying new things and making mistakes. Helping a student practice matching letters and colors in order to develop pre-reading skills. Those skills are in the foreground, and the experience of making the music is so much more important than the quality of the finished product.

None of that is a slight against music teachers, understand. Music teachers are amazing at what they do! I wouldn't be where I am without a bevvy of very patient music teachers in my life.

There's also a point of overlap-- adaptive music lessons. That's music lessons which have been adapted to the needs of someone with a disability that would otherwise prevent the from learning an instrument. Say, going back to the piano, if a prospective student could only use one finger on their left hand, an adaptive music instructor could provide music that only used one note at a time on the left hand so that the student could successfully play it. Many music educators AND music therapists are able to provide this service.

Adding it All Together

A music therapist is someone who has met the requirements to become certified. Music therapy is a certified therapist using proven and researched techniques, focused around music, to help individuals reach their goals.

Music therapy is used in a lot of different settings and with a lot of different populations. Hospitals, psychiatric clinics, rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities, hospices, schools; there are even music therapists in the corporate world who do professional development with businesses.

In coming posts, I'll talk about each of those settings. Even in the scenes that I don't personally work, there are all sorts of exciting and interesting things going on (I can't wait to talk about the growth of new neural fibers across parts of the brain damaged in a stroke with MMIT). In the future I'd like to get some guest posts by music therapists who work those fields. But I'm going to be starting out with talking about the groups we serve here at Aim High Music Therapy. And since March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month:

The next few posts are going to be about Cerebral Palsy, and what are some specific ways that Music Therapy can help individuals who have it.

And that's a wrap.

Those of you who made it all the way to the bottom of the post (would you believe I cut this down for length from the original?), thank you so much for reading! Please feel free to ask any questions that you might have about this post or anything else; and in the meantime, I'll be seeing you soon!


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(801) 871-8036

South Jordan, UT, USA

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