An Introduction to Music Therapy

Music is often described as “powerful.” A musical passage can rouse up and inspire a stadium full of people or bring a single person to tears. It can inspire, it can disappoint, and it can conjure up any human emotion from rage to joy. But can music provide therapeutic relief to people who are suffering from cognitive, emotional, social or physical disabilities? If you were to ask a music therapist, you would surely receive an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Music therapy is a field in which certified therapists treat their patients using music as a tool and a means to communicate. The American Music Therapy Association is a non-profit organization with the mission of promoting the use of music therapy to help people cope with physical or emotional challenges.

“Our top goal is to advance public awareness of music therapy, as well as increase access to quality music therapy services,” said Jennifer McAfee, AMTA’s Communications Director, adding that the group also does “everything from managing the bookstore where students buy their books, to advocacy on Capitol Hill, to hosting our annual national conference, to providing guidelines for the clinical training and education of a music therapist.”

What Music Therapists Do

A program of musical therapy begins with the therapist evaluating a patient’s condition and discussing their musical preferences in order develop a plan to treat the individual’s condition.

Thus, in consultation with the patient, the therapist determines the instrument or instruments to be used in therapy, as well as the genre of music.

The therapist and patient meet at a designated interval, perhaps weekly to conduct their sessions, while the therapist watches for, encourages and documents progress. Sessions are often one-on-one, but larger group sessions may be used with children and seniors. Smaller groups may be used in drug rehab situations.

Music therapy sessions may occur in many different settings, including hospitals, hospice, schools, prisons and even in the home.

What does it take to be a music therapist? In addition to having strong interpersonal skills and the ability to connect with people, music therapists need to have certain musical skills. They need not be virtuosos, but must be able to proficiently play piano, guitar and percussion instruments, and have some singing ability.

Music therapists “are the most kind, caring, passionate people I’ve ever met,” said McAfee, the AMTA spokesperson. “The passion for the profession is incredible and contagious.”

Benefits of Music Therapy

According to the AMTA, music therapy can also help people achieve many health, wellness and educational goals, including managing stress, reducing pain, expressing feelings and emotions, improving communication skills, enhancing memory and improving the success of physical rehabilitation. For some patients, music therapy may be combined with efforts in physical therapy and occupational therapy to produce improved outcomes.

Music therapy can be used with clients of all ages, and the client need not have any musical ability for the therapy to be effective.

History of Music Therapy

According to AMTA, interest in the benefits of music therapy gained momentum in the early 1900s; music therapy as an academic discipline emerged in 1944 with the first such program established at Michigan State University. Other “pioneers” offering the study of music therapy include the University of Kansas, College of the Pacific, Averno College and Chicago Musical College.

How to Become a Music Therapist

To become a music therapist, the student must first earn a bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy, from one of 80 AMTA-accredited programs, in which the curriculum combines therapeutic studies with music education. After graduating, the prospective therapist must then pass a national board certification exam administered by AMTA; those who pass receive the credential MT-BC, which stands for “music therapist – board certified.” MT graduate programs focus on research and clinical practice.

Today, music therapy is a growing profession. And while the effects of the Covid-19 virus seem to be fading across much of the United States, the pandemic has highlighted the need for musical interventions to help peoples’ mental health, according to McAfee of the AMTA.

“We have seen some amazing studies come through, and many that are still ongoing, showing the uptick in need for self-care. Music therapy has come to rescue in many of these situations,” she said.


AMTA web site: )

The book “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist.

Aleah Fitzwater is a classical flutist, arranger, artist, and educator. She is also a music blogger. Aleah frequently writes tutorials on how to digitize music using optical music recognition. You can read more of her content on You can contact her at

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