Does a Music Therapy Degree Make Sense for You?

The field of music therapy has been growing significantly as a result of its positive impact on babies in neonatal intensive care as well as people with Alzheimer’s disease, PTSD, depression, substance abuse, pain, autism spectrum disorders, dementia, and other life challenges.

Universities began establishing academic programs in music therapy (MT) in the 1940s, the first national association formed in 1950, and certification in MT began in 1983. As of 2011, there were 72 colleges and universities accredited by the American Music Therapy Association, offering a music therapy degree on the undergraduate and/or graduate level.

How can you tell if music therapy is a good fit?

In our recent article, Becoming a Music Therapist, Dr. William Davis, director of the undergraduate program in music therapy at Colorado State University, states “A prospective music therapy major must be an excellent musician and willing to learn a variety of instruments such as guitar, piano, autoharp, hand percussion as well as be comfortable with singing.” Also required is a level of comfort in interacting with people with disabilities, chronic pain, and/or debilitating mental health problems. Dr. Cathy McKinney, Music Therapy Program Director at Appalachian State University’s Hayes School of Music adds that music therapists must commit to lifelong professional development since the profession is continuing to grow and evolve.

To get a hands-on sense of whether a music therapy degree is your calling, the American Music Therapy Association suggests contacting them (301.589.3300) and asking for a list of music therapists in your area who would be open to job shadowing. Brian Wilson, director of music therapy at Western Michigan University, also suggests volunteering with Special Olympics, hospitals or nursing homes, where you can gain experience working with the populations likely to benefit from music therapy.

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  1. Wayne

    I’m interested in music therapy as a career. I am attending a community college that offers a bachelor degree in psychology, but not music therapy. Would a degree in psychology allow me to start a career in music therapy? I played instruments in high school, but I no longer play. Is it possible to work in music therapy without playing instruments? I’d like to work in schools with children or work with adults and provide therapy with music created by other people, is that possible? Are there any related career fields that would suit what I am looking for?

    • A degree in psychology will not lead to a career in music therapy. While psychology is an important component of what you would study as a music therapy student, majoring in music therapy requires an audition on a primary instrument as part of your application process and includes music classes as well as other areas deemed relevant to becoming a professional in this field.

      Please read the music therapy articles on to learn more about this wonderful profession and what the training entails.

  2. Zyla

    I am a freshman in college and I am trying to decide whether I want to major in music therapy or music education. I want to work with children.

    • For starters, we encourage you to read all the music therapy and music education articles on to gain a better feel for each of these career fields. You may also want to explore the websites of the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME).
      It may also be helpful to talk with the department chairs of music education and music therapy at your current school to learn more about how you can major in in one field and keep the door open for the other.

      There are two ways into the music therapy profession – one is to major in it in college as an undergrad; the other is to major in another area of music and then take an approximately 2-year “equivalency program” at a school that offers this. The equivalency program provides what you would have missed by not majoring in music therapy and prepares you for the exams that any prospective music therapist must take. Note that regardless of your primary instrument, you will be expected to show a certain level of proficiency in voice, keyboards, and guitar in order to become a music therapist – classes in all of these are offered in music therapy programs.

      As a music education major, should you decide later to switch to music therapy, you would take the equivalency program. As a music therapist, should you decide later to switch to music education, you would likely be able to take a master’s level program to prepare you to teach.

  3. Claire

    I’m currently a college freshman majoring in Voice Performance. I’m thinking I’ll complete a bachelor’s in Voice Performance and take the music therapy equivalency program. Is this a good way to go about it?

  4. bethany

    I’m currently a junior in high school and I’m thinking of pursuing music therapy in college. However, my primary instruments are violin, viola, and voice. I’m not too great at the piano and have never learned how to play guitar or any brass instruments. Will I be required to learn piano and guitar in order to audition? Also, as a music therapist, do you get to choose what field you work in? (For example, working in psychiatric hospitals, playing for newborn babies, or working with students with disabilities)

    • Schools offering music therapy programs will have you apply and audition on your primary instrument. If you are accepted, you will be taking classes in voice, piano and guitar because these instruments have been deemed the most useful in the practice of music therapy. You won’t be expected to become highly proficient in these three instruments but you will be proficient enough to be able to use them in your work as needed.

      Learn more about different areas in which music therapy is useful by reading these articles on Also visit the website of the American Music Therapy Association. Note that a key component of the music therapy curriculum is the internship. This gives you hands on experience in working in a music therapy setting before you graduate.

  5. Erin

    Im an advanced piano player and like to work with other people. I feel like i could definitely learn guitar and other Instruments to become a music therapist, but i don’t know how to sing, nor do I want to. Do I have to be a singer if I want to go into music therapy?

    • You don’t need to become a highly proficient singer to pass the qualifying exams to become a music therapist. You will, however, need to take some vocal music classes in your music therapy curriculum in college because the three instruments deemed most useful in this profession are keyboards, guitar and voice.

  6. Sarah

    Do you have to be at the same musical level to get into a Bachelor of Music program as to get into a Bachelor of Music Therapy program? If you are trying to go into music therapy do you have to audition as if you were going into music?

    • A music therapy degree is a music degree so yes, auditions are required. However, the bar for auditioning tends not be quite as high for music therapy as it would be for a music performance degree. Note that if you are applying to a music therapy program within a university, you will also need to apply to and be accepted by the university in order to be accepted into the music program. So your GPA and SAT or ACT scores will also be considered.

  7. Mikaela

    I’m a grade 10 student. I’ve been singing in choirs for ten years, planning to do my level 8 RCM piano exam in June, and been playing alto sax for 4, years so I have a background in music. I’ve read that guitar, voice, and piano proficiency is required and I’m wondering if you would have to audition with all three to get into the program or just audition with your focus instrument. Will I be able to learn guitar during the program or do I already have to be proficient to get in? If so, what level of guitar and voice proficiency is required?

    • You will need to audition on your primary instrument. As a music therapy major, you will take classes in voice, keyboards and guitar to prepare you for the exams required to graduate with the music therapy credential – and for what you’re most likely to need as a working music therapist. You are not expected to be proficient on these when you enter your program. However, anyone planning to major in music should start getting some keyboard skills before applying.

  8. Benna

    I am a senior in high school and I really want to be a music therapist. I have been in band playing the flute for 8 years and I love music. I am currently trying to learn piano and I haven’t played the guitar very much. I have a good ear and i’m good at pitch but I don’t think i’m a very good singer either. What should I do so that my dream of becoming a music therapist can come true?

    • Since you’re a senior, we assume you’ve already applied to college and are preparing for auditions. And if you’re interested in becoming a music therapist, you’ll either be majoring in music therapy at a school that offers it, or majoring in music and then taking a music therapy equivalency program.

  9. Sara

    I am currently attending classes at a community college in attempts to earn my associates in General Studies. I will soon be transferring to a university in a few months. I have always showed incredible interest in Music Therapy however, while I may excel in writing and performing music vocally and through guitar playing, I am deficit in my ability to read music. Do I still have a chance at achieving a bachelors in Music Therapy? If so, can you explain to me what I should do to prepare for the interview and auditions?

    • To become a music therapist, you will need to major in music therapy OR another area of music and take the Equivalency Program (see our article about this on Either way, you’ll need to audition. Most schools include sight reading as part of the audition. The more competitive the school, the stronger your sight reading skills need to be at the time of your audition.

      Read all the articles on about music therapy to learn more about this profession. Also look at schools with music therapy programs and check their audition requirements to see what you’d need to be prepared to do.

  10. Erika L.

    I am currently a high school student who wishes to become a music therapist. My primary instrument is voice. Would I be eligible for an Equivalency Program if I got a Bachelor’s Degree in a psychology major with a minor in music, or a double major in music and psychology?

    • You will qualify for an Equivalency Program if you major in any area of music, regardless of whether you double major. But a double major in music and psychology will certainly be beneficial if you do go on in music therapy.

  11. Michelle K

    I am a freshman studying harp performance. What would be the next best step to take for music therapy? Minor in psychology?

    • We encourage you to read all of the articles on about music therapy – pay particular attention to the Equivalency Programs article. It speaks to what anyone with an undergraduate degree in music but NOT in music therapy will need to do in order to become a music therapist. Also visit the website of the American Music Therapy Association to learn more about this wonderful profession.

      And per your question: a minor in psychology would be great but is not required. The most relevant psychology background needed is included in the Equivalency Program. Any experience you can get working with the populations for which music therapy has been shown to be especially useful would help you determine whether indeed this is the right field for you to pursue.

  12. I am currently in my second year with a music Major with a minor in psychology because the school I attend does not have the full music therapy degree. I have been thinking about switching my major and minor, but Im not sure where that will put me in finding an equivalency program after graduation. Which is the best route?

    • If you want to become a music therapist and attend a school that doesn’t have a music therapy bachelor’s program, then what you are doing now should set you up well for getting into an Equivalency Program.

  13. Karrl

    I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Kinesiology, and I’ve gained experience working with patients in nursing homes and medical centers, with physical or mental disabilities. I want to know which schools have an equivalency program that would fit me, because I read that . I have a background working with people in terms of music teaching, as a youth and music ministry leader, but I don’t have school classes taking music other than vocal ensemble. Would schools consider Kinesiology similar enough that I would be able to take the equivalency program, even if I do have a lot of experience being exposed to music and teaching it?

    • Make sure to read our Equivalency Program in Music Therapy article.

      The schools we work with all require that you have an undergraduate major in some area of music in order to apply to the Equivalency Program in Music Therapy. A degree in kinesiology would not be considered an alternative to a degree in music. Look at curricula on websites of schools with music therapy programs to see the requirements. Then look at Equivalency Program curricula to understand how those programs are set up to bridge the gap for music majors who did not major in music therapy. With that said, if you said you were a highly proficient musician with a strong music background, we’d recommend visiting the American Music Therapy Association’s website to see if there are others schools that would consider you without an undergraduate music degree.

  14. Erin

    I am interested in pursuing a career in music therapy. I play the violin, piano, guitar, mandolin, bagpipes and I’m currently learning the tenor drum. I enjoy working with children with special needs. As much as I love playing my instruments, I don’t really like to sing. Is singing always required with this career?

    • Passing the voice proficiency exam is required, and voice classes are a part of the music therapy curriculum. According to the American Music Therapy Association, …”a music therapist must be versatile and able to adjust to changing circumstances and many different instruments may be used within a therapeutic context. There is not one single instrument every music therapist needs to play in every session, but rather, music therapy students choose one instrument to be their major instrument of focus during their educational course of study and are given basic training on a variety of instruments. The choice of instrument or musical intervention used in a music therapy session is dependent upon goals and objectives, the client’s preferences, and the music therapist’s professional judgement.”

  15. Mark D

    I am a musician with a Bachelors degree in psychology, and I am interested in pursuing a career in music therapy. I did not actually study music in school, but I have a lot of music experience (+10 years playing percussion, collegiate A Cappella singing, guitar proficiency). Is it possible to apply for a Music Therapy Equivilancy program with a psychology degree or do I have to complete another 4 year Bachelors degree?

    • Every school with a Music Therapy Equivalency Program is different. Some require you to have an undergrad degree in music, others will allow those with a strong music background to apply. We suggest you choose some schools that would meet your criteria and contact them directly.

  16. Crystal

    I am in the process of getting my degree in music, and then getting my master’s degree in music therapy. Are there some music therapists in my area? I would love to job shadow.

  17. Kathryn

    Can I restrict the kinds of clients I accept? I would love to have this career, but the only thing I really can’t handle is autistic meltdowns.

    • Kathryn, we suggest you read more about the purpose of music therapy and the nature of the work itself. Not everyone is a good fit for this profession, and in view of your comment, we would encourage you to look very closely at what kind of work really makes sense for you to pursue.

  18. Cassandra

    I am currently studying occupational therapy, it is my 2nd year. In my bachelor’s degree I hold a music minor and really wanted to explore music therapy after I am done with my OT degree. I wanted to know how would I go about doing that without having to get a 2nd bachelors degree.

    • The Equivalency Program at most music therapy schools allows students who were undergraduate music majors but NOT music therapy majors to gain the education they missed in approximately 2 years instead of getting another undergraduate degree. Check with schools you might be interested in attending to see what classes you would need to take as a music minor in order to qualify for the Equivalency Program. Every school is different!

    • Our understanding is that music therapists do not work under occupational therapists, but you would need to check the hospital system you’re exploring to know how they administer their program. You can also check with the American Music Therapy Association to learn more.

  19. deckardm

    Would someone with a bachelors in Music and a doctorate in Occupational Therapy be able to work in the Music Therapy field?

    • With a bachelor’s degree in music, you will be able to take the 2-year equivalency program at schools offering music therapy degree programs, without having to repeat another bachelor’s degree. Talk with schools you’re interested in for specifics about their programs.

    • According to our contact at the American Music Therapy Association, “A degree in special education is an education degree. There would be no music component. A music therapy degree is a music degree which is divided into three parts: music foundations, clinical foundations, music therapy foundations.” If this does not answer your question sufficiently, contact the American Music Therapy Association directly.

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