How To Become a Music Therapist
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Music Therapists work with everyone from children to elderly Alzheimer’s patients, as well as clients with substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, mental health problems and developmental disabilities.
Some Therapists work by themselves in private practice or are subcontracted through a music therapy group, while many work in hospitals and other healthcare organizations as a member of a clinical team providing treatment to a wide array of patients. Others work in schools and nursing homes. Music as a source of healing has been used for centuries, but in Western countries, it is a relatively new phenomenon that has grown in use and application since the 1950s.
As an academic discipline, music therapy has become more and more popular, especially in the US, where numerous colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate programs that allow the student completing the academic program and internship the opportunity to sit for the board certification exam (MT-BC) as a Music Therapist. Clinical practice in music therapy is recognized as a viable treatment method for a wide range of diseases and disorders.
It’s important to understand that music therapy is not a performing career. Music Therapists are primarily engaged with using music and music-related activities as a tool for healing. This is very different from performing on stage for an audience, as the Music Therapist must work directly with individuals and groups with the primary goal being to help the patient make progress with their treatment. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t Music Therapists who also have performing careers.
Some Music Therapists also teach, just as there are also performers who teach. As a music careerist, it’s possible to do several different jobs simultaneously, though that doesn’t take away from the fact that learning any profession takes an incredible amount of dedication, patience, and hard work. Becoming a Music Therapist will require a mix of instrumental and vocal music skills, plus a knowledge of the hard and soft sciences (e.g., biology, neuroscience, psychology, social sciences), good interpersonal skills, the ability to work as part of a team, and maybe most importantly, compassion and caring for people with a variety of challenges.
So, what is music therapy? Trained Music Therapists use musical performance, lessons, songwriting, and music listening as part of an integrative course of therapy to improve the individual client’s social, emotional, physical, and/or cognitive abilities.
They work in a range of settings, from addiction recovery centers to hospices to adult schools to special education programs. They partner with Nurses, Doctors, Counselors, Physical Therapists, Speech Therapists, Voice Therapists and other professionals to help the client reach their goals.
To learn more about how to become a Music Therapist, we talked to music therapy professionals:
- Kalani Das, Director of Golden State Music Therapy
- Miya Adout, Founder & Executive Director of Miya Music Therapy
- Rebecca Vaudreuil, Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network
What exactly does a Music Therapist do?
Certified Music Therapists work with people of all ages and abilities to help them achieve their therapeutic goals. This can include to reduce anxiety, improve social and communication skills, increase self-awareness, and improve specific motor skills. Music Therapists work with people as young as babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, to children with autism spectrum disorder, adults with mental health concerns, and those in end-of-life care.
Board-certified Music Therapists use music interventions with patients in individual or group settings to accomplish clinical goals within a therapeutic relationship.
Similar to other healthcare disciplines, music therapy is commonly incorporated into clinical milieus and exists in various treatment settings serving medical, neurological, mental health, educational, developmentally delayed, and palliative populations. Music therapy interventions are used to address motor function, social skills, emotional regulation, coordination, self-expression, and personal growth across the lifespan, from neonates to seniors.
There really is no typical day for a Music Therapist. They can work in different locations with different client populations every day, including adult daycares, nursing homes, addiction treatment centers, and daycare schools for the developmentally disabled. Usually, Kalani Das says he does four fifty-minute sessions with a client group of around twenty people per session.
He brings in his musical equipment, including instruments the clients can play, and together they sing a mix of new and familiar songs. Each session is staffed by on-site caregivers, with a ratio of usually around five clients to a caregiver. “You don’t learn a formula and just do it, you’re creating an answer together,” he says about the client/therapist relationship.
Is music therapy a good career?
For those who love music and love helping others through the therapeutic process, music therapy is a great career. Plus, music therapists can get paid very well (although there is of course a range of salaries) and the demand for them is increasing as more people realize the effectiveness of music therapy.
Music therapy is not a high-paying profession, especially when compared to some other jobs in the medical field. Music Therapists may, for example, hold down several jobs at different hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and schools. They may also be in private practice where they see individual clients or organize group therapy sessions.
Some Therapists teach part time or even full-time at a college or universities, and then oversee their students’ practicums or work part-time at a healthcare institution. Whether working as a freelancer or in a salaried position, the experienced board-certified Music Therapist can expect to earn enough money for a middle-class lifestyle.
Do Music Therapists make good money?
According to careersinpsychology.org2, the average salary of a board-certified Music Therapist in the United States is approximately $40,000; however, it can range anywhere between $28,000 and $70,000.
Yes! Like many professions, there is a range of what you can make depending on experience and level of education. Music Therapists can work as a subcontractor, employee, or start their own private practice, all of which have the potential for high earnings.
On average, US Music Therapists earn approximately $44,400 annually. According to Glassdoor, the salary range runs from $33,000 to $67,000.
Most Therapists receive a salary through the organization that employs them. Those in private practice can charge an hourly rate.
While the academic literature in music therapy continues to grow and the number of board-certified Music Therapists is relatively high (9,000), it is not clear what the career outlook for music therapy is. One contributing factor to the growth of jobs and salaries may be the aging of the population, as elderly patients tend to have more health challenges that could benefit from music therapy. Another variable in music therapy will be the possibility of insurance reimbursement, particularly for private practitioners, which, at this time, is extremely limited.
As the field continues to grow, it is anticipated that there will be more master’s level programs for advanced clinical practice and possibly more doctoral programs for those aspiring to become music therapy College Professors. Further, as the World Federation of Music Therapy can attest, music therapy is increasing in more and more countries.
Source: Karen Goodman, Professor Emerita, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey ([email protected])
Are Music Therapists in high demand?
Music Therapists are increasing in demand. This is often the case if you work with certain populations such as seniors living in long-term care facilities. As we are seeing the number of older adults increasing overall in our population, so does the need for valuable services that improve their well-being, such as music therapy.
Schools are the fastest growing area for Music Therapists to find employment because they have more funds and more opportunities. Positions in hospitals are secure and relatively easier to get. Older adult facilities are tougher, which is too bad because shut-ins love when Music Therapists visit.
Music Therapists are becoming increasingly recognized for their contributions across medical and healthcare systems (listed above) as well as wellness settings.
Career prospects are good for Music Therapists. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics3 projects 7% growth over the course of the decade from 2018 to 2028, which is faster than the average for other professions.
Some of this growth is due in part to the United States’ aging population. Older people can greatly benefit from recreational therapies like music therapy to improve memory function and alleviate other emotional, social, mental, and physical issues.
What is the future of music therapy?
Virtual meetings could become a regular part of music therapy’s future along with continued in-person sessions, allowing music therapists to treat clients from anywhere in the world. Another element that’s becoming part of music therapy is using it for preventative health instead of using it solely for the treatment of diseases and disorders.
Advancement occurs through experience and further education. Music Therapists who attend graduate-level music therapy degree programs can focus on research and advanced clinical practice, and progress professionally and financially in this way.
They can also move into supervisory positions or university teaching and research roles. Therapists who open a private practice can also charge their own rates, therefore making it possible to earn a higher income.
Employment can be obtained as a result of an internship, responding to job postings or through calling care facilities and checking in with Client Services Directors. In Kalani’s case, he got his first Music Therapy job because someone at an addiction recovery center found his website—so have a good website outlining your credentials, experience, and what makes you special.
What qualifications do you need for music therapy?
It was hard, at first to play music while simultaneously maintaining extra headroom for the client. Struggling to play a song gives no time for the client, so you have to be super confident in your musical abilities so you can see how the client is reacting.
[He recommends that potential Therapists have a firm knowledge of instruments like guitar, piano, and ukulele and that they work on developing technical skills in drumming and a strong vocal presence.]
You must have a passion for serving people. Your number one goal has to be to help people [with a love for music coming in second.] Essential qualities include patience and persistence because it’s hard to become a Music Therapist. Also tenacity.
Be hard-working, and do not be the kind of person who takes things personally [because clients can get frustrated or angry and sometimes are unable to control things like swearing.] You have to like people, be creative, and be a problem solver.
It’s not a fallback career. Lots of people don’t make it through [the degree program]. It’s lots of work, but it’s rewarding. Don’t take it lightly.
You need an undergraduate or master’s degree in Music Therapy. If your degree is in something else, you may be eligible to complete a degree equivalency program without having to get a whole new undergraduate degree.
Students who have taken the requisite coursework must do fieldwork/an internship to get practical experience.
Finally, they must pass a certification exam. A successful exam will lead to getting their Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC) designation. After this, the student becomes a certified Music Therapist and is ready to work!
Experience & Skills
To become a Music Therapist, one must first be a good musician with solid all-around musical skills. Formal training is a must, and regardless of principal instrument, a Therapist must also be able to play guitar or piano well enough to function as an Accompanist for a group.
Many Music Therapists are competent on both guitar and piano, and also have some ability with percussion instruments. It’s also important to have some singing abilities and a commanding vocal presence. The musical skills required are quite different from what’s required for concertizing, for example, since the Music Therapist must be able to engage with patients while playing instruments. Practicing music therapy requires the ability of the Therapist to think quickly and play instruments or sing, while observing and adjusting to accommodate the needs of the patient or group of patients.
Do you have to play an instrument to be a Music Therapist?
Yes! To get into any music therapy university program they tend to require experience on guitar, piano, and voice. Many Music Therapists are also trained in other instruments and use them in their clinical work.
Music Therapists must achieve proficiency in the core musical areas of voice, guitar, piano, and percussion. In addition, Music Therapists must maintain proficiency on their principal instrument if it differs from the core music proficiencies required for music therapy.
Education & Training
The education and training of a Music Therapist is challenging. It includes all requirements of a music major, requirements for music therapy foundations courses, the equivalent of a minor in Psychology, and, finally, general education courses within the university. Following several semesters (4-6) of supervised clinical work, students are required to complete 1,200 hours of fieldwork as an Intern in a health or education-related setting.
Music therapy graduates can sit for the board certification exam through the Certification Board for Music Therapy and document continuing education credits as required.
What does it take to become a Music Therapist?
Music therapy degrees range from bachelor’s level to Ph.D. A Music Therapist is qualified to sit for their board examination, which earns them the board-certified Music Therapist (MT-BC) credential required for practice, after completing a bachelor’s degree. The bachelor’s program takes approximately 4 years, add 2 years to the 4-year bachelor’s degree to earn a Masters, and up to 3-5 additional years for a Ph.D., depending on the plan of study.
There are a few routes to become a Music Therapist. You can study a 4 year Bachelor’s degree, or take a 1 or 2-year graduate degree in music therapy if you have a strong academic background in music and psychology.
- Work on your musical skills. You must be nimble, you must be able to play in a different meter or different key.
- Check out videos on YouTube and do research. [Kalani recommends videos of former Arizona state senator Gabby Giffords working with her Music Therapist.]
- Get a head start [on reading about psychology, biology, and physiology books, as your education will be filled with similarly challenging coursework.]
- Learn how to read a study, know the scientific method.
What are the different types of music therapy?
The different types of music therapy include The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, Dalcroze Eurhythmics, Kodaly, Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT), Nordoff-Robbins, and Orff-Schulwerk. Each of these approaches could have its own educational course as they each use different music therapy theories and have very involved techniques.
The American Music Therapy Association is the nation’s largest professional association, with over 5,000 Music Therapists in its ranks. The AMTA determines training standards for the industry.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
Try to research and understand what the career is, and have a passion for serving people.
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
People don’t understand what the career entails. Not doing their research, just filling in the blanks with their own imagination. Read a book, do research, job shadow.
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
Ask “What does a Music Therapist do every day? If I was watching a Music Therapist do their work, what would that look like? What’s going through the Music Therapist’s head when they’re working? What’s informing why they do what they do?” This helps [you] get the big picture, with tools, techniques, and strategies. It’s not just performing.
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
What’s the most rewarding aspect?” Kalani says it’s “seeing evidence that something I’ve done has helped somebody. Seeing clients make progress. Seeing people open up, brighten up, be more social, relax, and get more energy.
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Flexibility. Musical and interpersonal relationships can be in a state of flux, you have to be able to move.
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Kalani Das MT-BC
Kalani Das is a Southern California-based Music Therapist who started his musical career as a performing artist specializing in world music percussion. He was invited to present at a conference for Music Therapists, started teaching them new instrumental skills and shortly afterward was inspired to go back to school for his Music Therapy degree. He specializes in working with clients with addiction, developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and aging-related issues.
As a performer, Kalani Das has toured or recorded with Yanni, Barry Manilow, Kenny Loggins, Chante Moore, and John Mayall. He has written over ten books, including The Way of Music – Creating Sound Connections in Music Therapy, published by Sarsen Publishing (review via Goodreads). He is currently the Director of Programs at Golden State Music Therapy. He has been cited as a resource by Lewy Body Dementia Resource Center and Sound Escape Music Therapy.
Das has been a guest instructor at Chicago’s VanderCook College of Music and taught a masterclass through Imagine. He has performed at Flute Harvest and served as a representative for the Western Region chapter of the American Music Therapy Association.
Miya Adout MA, MTA
Miya Adout founded Miya Music Therapy based on her vision to improve patient quality of life in healthcare settings throughout Ontario. Miya is a graduate of Concordia University where she received a Master of Arts in Creative Arts Therapies after having completed a BA in Cultural Studies. Miya works with individuals of all ages and abilities including with parents and infants, adolescents with autism, and seniors living with dementia.
As the MMT slogan states, Miya believes that music therapy is an integral part of every health and wellness team and she is passionate about sharing this through keynote presentations and workshops. Miya also sits on the board of the Music Therapy Association of Ontario, provides business coaching to healthcare entrepreneurs, and has created Connect 2 Music Therapy, an online global magazine for Music Therapists.
When she’s not providing music therapy or business coaching, Miya enjoys playing with her toddler, spending time in nature, and practicing photography!