music therapy

What Is Music Therapy?

Millions of people love music and believe it to be the most important thing in their lives so it wouldn’t be difficult to find many students still in high school (or perhaps even younger) who aspire to work with music in some form when they enter the workforce. For the majority of those students, they believe the only way to make a living with music is to become a Pop Star, a Rock Star, or a chart-topping hip-hop act.

It would be wonderful if that happened, right? But there are so many other ways to support one’s self in the field of music and it doesn’t always necessarily mean you have to be an artist. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of careers connected to music in some way, and one of the most interesting, exciting options most people don’t consider—perhaps because they haven’t even heard of it —- is music therapy.

What Is Music Therapy? In this article we’ll cover:

  1. Music therapy: a definition
  2. Types of music therapy clients
  3. The history of music therapy
  4. How to become a Music Therapist
  5. Schools where you can get a music therapy degree
  6. Deciding if a music therapy career is right for you

If you either have never even heard of Music Therapists before or if you don’t know much about the field, read on to see if it’s something you’d potentially like to study when the time comes.

Music Therapy: A Definition

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is “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.”

That’s a pretty scientific definition, but it’s actually perfect, as it is broad enough to describe the entire industry itself. Music therapy looks to help people with some form of disability or who may be suffering from some diagnosed condition (or even just some who may need a little help working through something in their lives) in a number of ways. Music can relax people, cheer them up, or provide them with a creative outlet, but beyond that, it can also help many troubled people by giving them a way to communicate what they are feeling. Sometimes that’s helpful because someone is having a difficult time understanding or expressing their feelings, or perhaps they are physically unable to do so for some reason.

Music therapy can start a conversation, but it is most often employed to help get clients dancing, singing, or playing along. It can be therapeutic, or even life-saving, depending on who is being assisted, and the needs and experience will vary from person to person.

[Music] has been shown to lift the spirits of those with depression, return some cognitive function to those who have lost theirs for a variety of reasons, and there are even cases where music has helped someone move a limb that hasn’t worked in years or speak when they’ve been silent.

Types of Music Therapy Clients

As a Music Therapist, you could wind up working with many different kinds of clients and they may have any number of ailments or conditions. Some practices focus on just one type of person with a very specific need, while others may take anybody who requires this form of help. It depends on the practice and the location, as well as how many Music Therapists are available.

You may not always have an opportunity to focus on just one subset of people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a specialty, depending on what you take an interest in and what you find out you may be best suited for. Music Therapists can help patients who may be suffering from PTSD or trauma, including those who have experienced something terrible or perhaps men and women returning from a foreign military conflict. The practice of music therapy is also helpful for a wide range of medical conditions, such as patients with autism, Alzheimer’s, those with heart problems or who have suffered strokes, schizophrenia, and a number of speech disorders.

There are also parts of music therapy that deal specifically with children and those jobs are typically focused more on education as well.

The History of Music Therapy

It is actually a bit surprising that music therapy remains something of an overlooked field of therapy (and music) since it has been around for so long. There are references to music-related cures and therapies that date back hundreds of years, though there were plenty of medical practices and therapies back in the 1700s and 1800s that weren’t exactly scientifically sound, so even some of those mentions aren’t considered relevant.

Music therapy didn’t really become an established way to help those in need until around the time of World Wars I and II. Musicians would play for soldiers who had been wounded and were in the hospital and it was clear the activity and the art was stimulating their minds and bringing up their spirits. Any doctor can tell you, while not always scientifically-proven, things that make patients happier tend to be good for their health.

Since that time, there have been enormous advancements in the world of music therapy, and it seems like every few years, Scientists, Doctors, and Therapists are learning just how powerful music can be. It has been shown to lift the spirits of those with depression, return some cognitive function to those who have lost theirs for a variety of reasons, and there are even cases where music has helped someone move a limb that hasn’t worked in years or speak when they’ve been silent. These discoveries are being made all the time and you could play a significant part in moving medical understanding forward.

It might sound like a bit of new age medicine to some but music therapy is not only a serious profession, it is a field that is gaining ground, becoming more respected every year, and expanding noticeably. Demand for Music Therapists is growing and the medical and scientific communities have become increasingly supportive of these therapeutic programs.

There are a number of professional organizations you can follow or become involved with even before you finish college (this may be a great way to find out if this field is really for you), such as the National Association for Music Therapy and the American Association for Music Therapy. There are even medical journals dedicated solely to the study and advancement of this field.

Unlike when you’re a singer or in a band, your work as a Music Therapist needs to be, first and foremost, in the interest of your clients, and you should be dedicated to them before your own art.

How to Become a Music Therapist

Those who want to one day become Music Therapists will need to have (above all else) a desire to help people — because while music is fun and exciting, all forms of therapy can be time-consuming, intense, and at times, very trying for both the Therapist and the client.

Undergrad degrees in music therapy are typically almost about 50% focused on all things music, including classes about music theory, history, and performance. Yes, as a Therapist in training, you are required to take courses on how to become a better musician, which is something you’d have to do if you were working on becoming a Rock Star.

The typical undergraduate degree in music therapy also contains required courses on a mix of the arts and behavioral sciences, including psychology, biology, sociology and so on. The exact list of classes changes from school to school, but if you’re thinking about applying to one of these programs, you’re going to need experience and good grades in all things music and science.

Once a prospective Therapist has earned his or her degree, they still need to become certified, as anybody working in any therapeutic industry would. There are examinations after college, and once someone is a credentialed Music Therapist (the letters you’ll add to the end of your name are MT-BC, in case you’re thinking that far ahead), then one can begin looking for a job.

There are also Master’s degrees available, and since this is a scientific field, it will be beneficial to you, your clients, and your career prospects to continue your education at some point and earn yourself a secondary degree.

Schools Where You Can Get a Music Therapy Degree

Now, I won’t start listing every college in the world that has some type of music therapy program, because that’s research you’ll need to do on your own, but there isn’t exactly a shortage of places you’ll be able to apply to. There are a number of highly-regarded names in academia that can provide you with what you’ll need to become a certified Music Therapist, such as New York University (NYC), Howard University (Washington, DC), Loyola (New Orleans), Temple University (Philadelphia), and even Berklee in Boston, which is easily one of the most respected musical colleges in the world. There are dozens of others spread out across the U.S., and perhaps even more around the globe, so if you’re looking to travel for school and try a new city, don’t worry that this field of study won’t grant you that opportunity.

Deciding if a Music Therapy Career Is Right for You

In doing research for this article, I came across a number of warnings that made it very clear that this job isn’t something every music lover can, or even should, dive into. While a lot of the work does involve playing an instrument with clients and helping them create tunes, and perhaps even writing and recording your own works, there is so much more to it and the focus shouldn’t be on you. Unlike when you’re a singer or in a band, your work as a Music Therapist needs to be, first and foremost, in the interest of your clients, and you should be dedicated to them before your own art.

That’s difficult for some musicians to hear but if you have any interest in dedicating your life to helping people and you truly love music, this is a career you might want to investigate. As you’re looking at what colleges to attend in the future and what you might want to do with the rest of your life, start doing some research and reaching out to people at universities, or perhaps even at music therapy offices to see if you can learn more. This growing field might end up being exactly what you never knew you were looking for.

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