Music Therapy: What is it and How Does it Work?
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Music Therapy: What is it and How Does it Work?

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Music Therapy: What is it and How Does it Work?

What is music therapy?

Music therapy, also known as sound therapy, supports the therapy process in clinical settings. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s break it down.

During the therapeutic process, the patient, guided and aided by the therapist, takes steps towards, and hopefully achieves, positive psychological (mental health) or physiological (physical health) outcomes.

Patients are treated in clinical settings by professionals for specific, diagnosed physiological or psychological conditions. Usually, the treatment occurs at a hospital or clinic, over time, in face-to-face and one-on-one sessions.

How does music therapy work?

Music therapy encourages positive physiological behaviors. For example, in a guided meditation exercise, the patient may be asked to regulate their breathing, which may lower their blood pressure and promote muscle relaxation. These physical outcomes can positively influence psychological well-being and support the patient to self-manage pain or stress more confidently.

Positive physiological behaviors provide a solid base for managing and controlling emotional and intellectual issues. For example, asking a patient to listen to a piece of music and describe their emotional responses can help patients who experience difficulties focusing their attention or expressing their feelings.

Examples of typical music therapy activities

Active listening
The therapist plays a song or piece of music to a patient and encourages the patient to talk about their feelings or the song’s meaning.

The therapist may play an instrument or sing a song and encourage the patient to sing along or clap their hands in time with the music.

Writing songs and lyrics
The therapist may work with the patient to write music or lyrics about a meaningful time in the patient’s life.

Dancing and movement
The therapist may play an instrument or a piece of music and encourage the patient to move their body in time with the music.

The therapist may play an instrument or a recorded song and guide the patient to a more relaxed state.

Music therapy health benefits

Music therapy builds upon one of the most common human characteristics, the enjoyment of music and the capacity to participate in musical endeavors. Music therapy helps people to move, listen, feel emotions, relax and manage pain.

While scientific studies have verified the significant benefits of ‘mainstream’ music therapy, some newer music therapy techniques and practices are yet to be scientifically validated.

Though evidence may be limited on some methods, music therapy has been found to be effective for stress reduction and relaxation and has been shown to offer many health benefits.

The demonstrated health benefits of music therapy

There are many well-documented benefits of music therapy in a range of health-related fields. Some of these positive health outcomes include:

Medical outcomes

  • Stress reduction

  • Pain management

  • Mood and emotion management

  • Social engagement

  • Family support

Rehabilitation outcomes

  • Gross and fine motor skills development

  • Language skills

  • Cognitive functions

Psychiatric outcomes

  • Personal insight/ expression

  • Mood and emotion management

  • Social engagement

  • Cognitive functions

  • Stress reduction

Neonatal outcomes

  • Stress reduction

  • Sensory development

  • Emotional bonding

Music therapists are accredited, allied health professionals

Music therapy is a recognized allied health profession. In the US, over 8,500 music therapists have earned accreditation from the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

The professional organization for music therapists, the American Music Therapy Association, has over 4,000 registered members.

Like many other allied health professional organizations, the American Music Therapy Association has developed a Code of Ethics, advocates for the profession at federal and state levels, and provides a range of services for members.

Partners in therapy

Music therapy is used to treat many psychological, intellectual, and emotional issues. Music therapy helps a broad range of patients, from children to the elderly.

Music therapists work with a range of health professionals to develop client management plans and achieve positive patient outcomes. They can work with:

  • Doctors

  • Nurses

  • Other therapists

  • Counselors

Music therapists may also engage with the patient’s family members to support positive outcomes.

Music therapy qualifications

If you are interested in pursuing a music therapist qualification, you can look at the American Music Therapy Association’s “Standards for Education and Clinical Training” page on their website. In addition, MI has a music composition program that could work in tandem with a music theory degree to further explore the power of music.

This page describes the required competency areas and curriculum structure for music therapy degrees:

  • 45% Musical foundations including music history and theory, composition and improvisation

  • 15% Clinical foundations including human development, exceptionality, psychopathology, and therapeutic relationships

  • 15% Music therapy foundations including methods, techniques, assessment, behavioral influences, music therapy research, and internships

  • 25% General education such as Arts, Social sciences, Physical sciences

Music therapy students must complete a minimum of 1200 hours of clinical training, including 900 hours in a clinical internship.

Music therapy graduates must pass the national certification exam with the Certification Board for Music Therapists before practicing music therapy in a clinical setting.

Musicians Institute is the leader in contemporary music education offering certificates to Masters degrees in programs spanning instrument performance, electronic production, music business, and everything in between.

For more information on all programs offered, please visit here:

For more information on MI Online programs, please visit here:

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