Music Therapy Q&A: General Questions

Music acts like a magic key to which the most tightly closed heart opens.

Maria von Trapp

"So… what do you do exactly? what is music therapy?”

Ah, the dreaded question for all music therapists - but only because there is so much to talk about, so many layers! 
Since I started my internship this past January (completed it in beginning of August), family members and friends alike have been asking me different things RE: the field and my internship itself; I found myself having to repeat my answers countless of times. So I decided to put out a request of sorts for any questions about music therapy that people may have. I also reached out to several other music therapists in North America, for some questions that they are commonly asked by clients, co-workers, or even strangers. 

Music Therapy Q&A.png

DISCLAIMER: the answers are only based on my own knowledge and personal experiences - if anything intrigues you, I highly encourage you to consult literature and/or other professionals to gain further insight.


1.  What is music therapy?

Music therapy definition (CAMT)

(I know, official definitions seem intimidating. Time to practice my elevator speech!)

In other words:

Music therapy is the evidence-based use of music as a tool to help individuals achieve non-musical goals.

1. There is a lot of research out there about the effectiveness of music in the domains listed above
2. A music therapist is specifically trained for the job, and is accredited 
3. Music is used in a purposeful manner (interventions) to work towards/achieve a particular goal
4. The therapeutic relationship between a Music Therapist and their client is essential to music therapy
5. Believe it or not, music can be dangerous (TRIGGERS) if not implemented in a safe and ethical way

The best way to explain is to use real-life examples: "Do you have time for a quick story?"

I had a patient (let’s call them ‘A’) who was always enthusiastic about music therapy sessions and would always show a positive outlook, despite being considered palliative/end-of-life. ‘A’ loved to socialize and quickly became friends with the staff and other patients on the unit. ‘A’ always seemed to show a strong facade, but through choosing and singing music that was personally meaningful, ‘A’ was able to truly express their emotions over their disease, loss of friends, and those associated with their stage of life, such as frustration, feelings of helplessness, and grief. The music also brought back fond and bittersweet memories ‘A’ had with their loved ones.

In the above example, the music therapy goals for the patient were: i) facilitate self-expression, ii) facilitate meaningful social interaction and relationship-building, and iii) life review.
Other examples of music therapy goals include (but are not limited to) the following:

- Increase attention span
- Improve fine motor skills
- Decrease feelings of pain
- Elevate mood
- Improve decision-making skills
- Foster a sense of belonging
- Facilitate speech development

We also use music therapy interventions (specific musical ‘activities’) to help facilitate the sessions.


2.  How do you get into music therapy?

Firstly, you have to have strong musicianship skills, because that's the core of music therapy. Every program around the world varies, so I will just speak about my own.
We get accepted into the undergraduate music program and do two years of general music before specializing in music therapy, with courses teaching improvisation, the theoretical frameworks of music therapy, music and culture, and practical knowledge, just to list a few. We also have placements/practicums throughout the music therapy terms, and a 1000h internship (+ passing the board exam) during our final year in order to become a board-certified Music Therapist (MTA) in Canada. Aside from the music therapy courses, we also take various psychology courses, such as: Introduction to Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Abnormal Psychology; so much so that many of us have a minor in psychology as well. Oh, we do also need to go through an audition/interview process to get into the music therapy stream. Another way one can become a Music Therapist is through completing a graduate program, with similar requirements in terms of internship hours and writing the board exam; the differences would be the courses.


3.  What instruments/equipment is best needed for music therapy?


a) portable - you can bring it right to the bedside
b) simple
c) the tone of the instrument is something that is generally most accepted by clients
d) versatile - strumming vs. finger-picking, can be amped for larger groups
e) encourages engagement - compared to other instruments, there is less of a barrier between the Music Therapist and their client; PLUS you can sing/speak while still keeping the music going

Various small pitched (e.g. tone chimes, glockenspiel) and non-pitched percussion instruments (e.g. drums, shakers) are also very useful, as they are easy to play, and therefore also encourages engagement and client participation.

Keyboard/piano can be VERY effective in creating and providing a soundscape to match a client’s emotions, as well as to encourage them to express themselves musically, due to the sheer musical versatility and range of the instrument. A lot can be done on keys. The biggest downside is that it is not very portable, and even smaller keyboards require some strategic setup.

READ: [ A Music Therapist’s Holiday Wishlist ]

Of course, because Music Therapists come from all different musical training backgrounds and are proficient at various different instruments, orchestral instruments (e.g. violin, harp) can be used in music therapy sessions too, and are effective in their own unique ways.

In terms of equipment, I have grown to rely on my iPad for sheet music/chords and for access to YouTube. I also recommend purchasing a nice set of bluetooth speakers for that purpose. Microphones are not a necessity, but they can be useful if you want to record any music with clients (with their given consent, of course) as a form of legacy work, or just as a fun project.

That took a LOT longer to write than I had anticipated, wow. If you have any more questions, please comment below, or shoot me a message here.