Music Therapy: Making a Difference One Note at a Time

Music therapy is the use of music by a trained and qualified music therapist to achieve non-music goals. It is a recognized health profession in which music is used to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of clients as assessed by a degreed- and board-certified professional. Activities may include creating, listening, analyzing, moving, singing, and/or playing. Treatment may be provided in a group or individual setting for specified amounts of time and frequencies.

Music therapy is used with babies, children, adolescents, adults, and geriatric clients in a variety of settings, including (but not limited to) nursing homes, hospitals, schools, early intervention centers, hospice programs, rehabilitation facilities, and day clinics. Music therapists may be employed full- or part-time by a specific company or organization, or be self- employed and serve on a contractual basis.

What Music Therapists Do

Music therapy is a highly-structured form of therapy that utilizes music specifically selected for each client and setting. It differs from music education in that music education focuses on teaching a specific music skill (such as singing on pitch or playing in rhythm), whereas music therapy emphasizes skills that can be transferred to other areas of the individual’s life (such as learning to cope with stressful situations).

Music therapy also differs from other forms of therapy in that it is non-invasive. Although it may not cure, it can provide unique outcomes that may otherwise be difficult to achieve. Music therapists often work in conjunction with other professionals (speech/language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, medical specialists, psychologists, and other creative arts therapists) as part of an interdisciplinary team. They may help to coordinate programming or offer suggestions, materials, or recommendations on how to motivate the client or continue the music experience after the therapy session has ended. Music therapists also work with families, providing important insights into loved ones’ needs and capabilities.

Effectiveness of Music Therapy

Music has been found to be effective in reducing pain sensations and anxiety, lowering blood pressure, alleviating fatigue, and enhancing literacy skills. It is useful for improving goal achievement, social skills, communication and on-task behaviors. It has also been shown to help organize information and physical movements, and transform aggression and hostility into creative self-expression. Music may be used to develop leisure skills, improve self- and other-awareness, decrease impulsivity, provide opportunities for memory recall and emotional intimacy, and serve as a stimulant or relaxation tool. It is processed in both hemispheres of the brain and involves all of the senses, thereby engaging participants at many levels and in a non-threatening manner. Music therapy is designed to be enjoyable and success-oriented, creating a safe environment where clients may experience the joy of music and be motivated to try new opportunities.

More Music Therapy Articles:

Mary Claire Holliday is a board-certified music therapist. She served as chair of the Workforce Development and Retention Committee for American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) for several years.  She received a BM in music therapy and music education from Nazareth College and an MS in music education from Saint Rose College.


    • Read the articles on to learn more. You’ll find that in the U.S., you must have a bachelor’s degree in music therapy or a bachelor’s degree in another area of music and then take an equivalency program in order to be deemed suitably prepared to take the exams that lead to becoming a credentialed music therapist. Each country determines its own rules, so check with the country’s regulations where you plan to study if outside the U.S.

  1. Claire

    I am freshman at the Catholic University of America, and am working on a BA in music with a focus on pedal harp and piano. I want to teach these instruments in a private studio or in a private school, not a public school. I am also looking into music therapy though. Is there an online music therapy or music thanatology degree (or a mix of the two) that I could get, or would I need to actually attend a school to be qualified? My Grandfather has Alzheimer’s, and has always loved music, so I play the piano or harp for him and sing. Now that I live in DC and he in Washington, I have to Skype him to sing, but he still enjoys it. I also play in Nursing Homes and hospitals when I can.

    • How wonderful that you’re communicating with your grandfather through music. Research shows that music has a significant impact on folks with Alzheimer’s.

      As a music major but not a music therapy major, in order to qualify to be a credentialed music therapist, you would need to take a music therapy equivalency program after you get your bachelor’s degree in music. Note that there are some programs that prepare you to work with people in hospital and other health-related settings, but these do not provide the music therapy credentials. You might want to check out the Music for Healing & Transition Program (MHTP)the Longy School of Music at Bard College will be offering this in the summer.Bedside Harp and Music Cares out of Canada are other programs that offer training but not as extensive as music therapy.

  2. Thomas

    Hi, I am a Music Education student at this time. Right now I am considering switching my degree from Education to Bachelors of Science in Music. Could I still get a masters in Music Therapy if I took this route?

  3. Jacob

    I am very interested in music therapy for mental health. I play guitar and hand drums, but also suffer from a scizoeffective disorder. Music has made such a difference to my mental health, I want to know how I can share my love of music to others. I find that bars are not the place that I want to work, I would love to work with those who need help.

    • Hi Jacob,

      It’s wonderful to discover the healing effects of music, isn’t it? There are plenty of informal ways to bring music into your work. But to work in hospitals, mental health centers, with veterans affected by PTSD, with older adults, in neonatal clinics, or with kids with autism –– you’re likely going to need music therapy credentials. We’re getting ready to post another article that speaks to questions about certification, but in the meantime you’ll be glad to know that your proficiency on guitar is essential to becoming a certified music therapist (as are keyboard and vocal proficiency).

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