Music Therapy

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is the enhancement of human capabilities through the planned use of musical influences on brain functioning. A music therapist designs musical experiences to target specific areas of the brain in order to elicit predetermined changes in the way those areas of the brain function and govern themselves. All music therapy goal-directed interventions are aimed at enhancing the functioning capacity of each client’s brain. -Taylor, 2010

Music therapy, as defined by the American Music Therapy Association (2007), is: “an established healthcare profession that uses music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals of all ages.”  After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, the qualified music therapist provides the indicated treatment including creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music. Through musical involvement in the therapeutic context, clients' abilities are strengthened and transferred to other areas of their lives. Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words.

Music therapy improves the “quality of life for persons who are well and meets the needs of children and adults with disabilities or illnesses.”  Interventions can be designed to: promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation. Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many areas such as: overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, increasing people's motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and providing an outlet for expression of feelings. -AMTA, 2007

How Does Music Therapy Work?

Music therapy research and clinical practice have proven to be effective with people of all ages and abilities. Whether a person's challenges are physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological, music therapy can address a person's needs. -MTABC, 2013

At its core, music therapy is the interaction between a therapist, a client(s) and the use of music. A music therapist assesses the client(s) and creates a clinical plan for treatment in conjunction with team and client goals, which in turn determines the course of clinical sessions. A music therapist works within a client-centered, goal-directed framework. -MTABC, 2013

A large amount of research has established that music activates vast areas of neural tissue in the brain, enlisting much more of the brain’s power for use in accomplishing any given task. In addition, it changes neural impulse patterning in the brain, allowing the brain to function differently then it would without music. It has been established that music has observable effects on human behavior through its influences on brain functions; thereby its effects can be used therapeutically. -Taylor, 2010

Music therapy is based on the principle that the body responds to passive music listening, active music production, and sharing the experience of music with others. The brain, experts theorize, is programmed to respond to music's regular beat and rhythm. Slower beats can slow down brain waves and induce relaxation; faster beats can stimulate the brain. -Haltzman, 2010

While researchers haven't completely tested out these theories, we do know that the part of the brain involved in musical awareness is closely linked to the part that controls emotions. It's also a generally accepted medical truth that reducing stress can help people control the symptoms of illnesses. -Haltzman, 2010

Who is qualified to be a Music Therapist?

A Board-Certified Music Therapist must complete a 4-year Bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at an accredited college or university. During that time, the student is expected to become an accomplished musician and composer, develop and hone multiple therapeutic skills and techniques in the field of psychology and counseling, direct and conduct large or small ensembles, musicals or dance choreography, gain an understanding of themselves and how one figures into the therapeutic process, and learn and understand how music interacts within the mind, body, and spirit and how to use that interaction to affect change. Once the coursework is successfully completed, the student must complete a 6-month supervised internship at an approved site. By the end of their internship, they are expected to demonstrate professional entry-level skills on multiple professional competencies. Once the internship is completed and these competencies are demonstrated, the student can then sit the National Music Therapy Board Certification exam. Once the exam is passed, the student will receive the credentials MT-BC and is ready to begin to practice without supervision.

Today, music therapy as a healthcare profession has continued to grow and expand. Masters and Doctoral programs are now offered at several colleges and universities around the country. Music therapists can obtain specialties in a variety of different areas through specialty certification programs, continuing education, or by pursuing a graduate or post-graduate degree.


AMTA: American Music Therapy Association.
Haltzman, S. (2010). Does Music Therapy Work: Evidence and Facts, From a Psychiatrist. My Family Doctor Magazine.
MTABC: Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.
Taylor, D. (2010). Biomedical Foundations of Music as Therapy