Music therapy

Music therapy, music therapy training

Music therapy is the “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program,” according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

The healing properties of music can be traced back to the Bible when David attempted to alleviate King Saul’s “melancholy” by playing his harp in the Book of Samuel. Despite music’s vast therapeutic history, using it as an organized form of psychotherapy is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In 1944, Michigan State University was the first institution of higher learning to establish music therapy as an independent academic program. A few years later, E. Thayer Gaston, started the first music therapy graduate degree program in the United States at the University of Kansas. Since that time, music therapy has been widely acknowledged as an independent type of psychotherapy. 


What are the 4 methods of music therapy?

It is important to note that you can’t just bring in music to a therapy session and call it music therapy. Specific therapist training and skills are required. Music therapists primarily employ one of four main methods when conducting music therapy.

Compositional Music Therapy

In this method, the therapist helps the client create music. This type of therapy can help people express themselves in a way that they may not be able to do in regular interactions. Or, it may help them process a difficult event from their past. For example, an individual who was abused by a family member may be able to heal their trauma by writing a song rather than talking about it face-to-face. No experience with music composition is required.

The creation of the music may serve as its own therapy or the music can be performed as a final step in the therapeutic process.

Improvisation Music Therapy

Improvisation therapy involves making music spontaneously, using voice, instruments, or other parts of the body. The therapist facilitates the creation of music, interprets it, and responds accordingly. This method may bring out creativity or allow the expression of emotions in those who have difficulty with verbalization. For example, an autistic child may be able to communicate thoughts and feelings to the therapist through song rather than in verbal interaction.

Receptive Music Therapy

A receptive intervention is one where the client listens to music to achieve a particular goal. The therapist will either create the music themselves or play it from a recording. For example, a therapist might play calming music to enhance relaxation in a guided imagery exercise. Additionally, a client may express themselves through dance or art while listening to music.

A popular receptive technique used by specially trained music therapists is called neurologic music therapy (NMT). The clinician uses music to change or bolster neurological pathways to address different aspects of brain function. This treatment has been particularly helpful in treating clients with neuro-linguistic difficulties and those who need assistance in developing motor skills.

Re-creative Music Therapy

In this approach, the client is asked to play or sing already-established songs. The songs may have a particular meaning and aim to bring out certain emotions to be discussed with the therapist or the songs may be a conduit to another goal with a specific population. For example, a client with a traumatic brain injury may be asked to sing short phrases of a song to improve speech production and fluency. Or, someone with Dyspraxia might be asked to drum along to a song to work on fine motor skills.

How does music therapy work for mental health?

Music therapy suffers from a lack of strong psychometric research. This is primarily because its techniques are difficult to operationalize and subject to biased interpretation. As a result, it is harder to perform accurate research to measure its effectiveness.

Nevertheless, there is a growing amount of research in the field, much of which is yielding promising results.
  • One area with substantial research is the effect of music therapy on pain management. One large meta-analysis found that music therapy interventions significantly reduced pain associated with disease, medical procedures, and injury.

  • Considerable research is being done on the potential benefits of music therapy for people with cognitive impairment, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Music therapy appears to have a small, yet positive benefit on the quality of life and cognitive functioning of individuals with mild dementia.

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Music Therapy training

A music therapist has to have specialized training and certification. Those wishing to become a music therapist must have at least a bachelor's degree in music therapy from an institution approved by the American Music Therapy Association. Music therapy programs involve academic courses as well as an internship at an approved site. 

After completing a program in music therapy, prospective therapists must pass the national exam offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. If successful, they will become a Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC). Those therapists without an MT-BC are technically not allowed to practice music therapy. It should be noted that this differs from some other therapeutic orientations. 

For instance, although a therapist should have sufficient training, they do not need to have a specific certification to practice cognitive-behavioral therapy or try their hand at narrative therapy. In contrast, music therapists have strict education and training guidelines to follow if they want to practice music therapy.

The healing power of music has been noted since the early days of man. However, its implementation as an organized psychotherapy is a more recent innovation. As its growing body of research suggests, music therapy appears to be an effective intervention in addressing a host of psychological issues. 


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