Music Therapy - Everything You Could Want to Know

Music is an integral part of human culture, and it has been for thousands of years. This form of expression affects our emotions, memory, and thinking. It can influence human behavior and even some autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate. Music therapy takes advantage of these changes to bolster the healing process after a serious physical injury, to ease the mind and emotions during a chronic illness, and even to create positive behavioral change.

What is Music Therapy?

Since music has been part of human culture for millennia, it has long been associated with improvements in mood, physical health, and social bonding. Aristole is often credited with associating music with medicine, but the true earliest use of music as a form of medicine was recorded in 1789 in an article with no known author titled, “Music Physically Considered,” which was published in Columbian Magazine.

Physician Edward Atlee was one of the first doctors to explore music therapy, publishing his dissertation on the topic in 1804. This was followed shortly by an 1806 dissertation from Samuel Matthews. Interest in music therapy gained support throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the formation of several short-lived music therapy associations, which failed to develop true medical standards for this approach to treatment.

Finally, the National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT) was founded in June 1950. The organization created a constitution and bylaws, developed standards for research, university training of music therapists, and clinical training requirements. NAMT developed a registry for music therapists and, by 1985, a board certification program. The application of very specific standards has allowed for the evidence-based examination of music therapy as a form of treatment.

Music therapy enhances different human capabilities through planned musical influences, from listening to music to playing an instrument, on several areas of the brain. The brain is the primary component of the central nervous system (CNS), which processes sensory inputs, autonomic and voluntary physical systems, memories, emotions, and behaviors.

Music therapists are a form of clinician, meaning they use medical research and evidence-based approaches to assessing their clients’ needs and a good course of treatment. Some approaches to music therapy are singing in a group, dancing to music, creating music with drums or other instruments, and even passively listening to favorite songs. The goals of music therapy are to strengthen the client’s natural abilities and help these transfer to other areas of their life. It can also be a beneficial therapy for people who struggle to communicate, either because of a brain trauma, disease, mental illness, or other disorder.

When applied alongside other clinical approaches, music therapy has been found to increase the client’s motivation to continue other aspects of treatment. This therapy can also provide emotional support for loved ones who may struggle with the client’s illness, provide an outlet to express feelings about treatment, and enhance the bond between the client and their loved ones or caregivers.

Therapy sessions can be in a one-on-one format, in groups, or in family therapy.

How to Become a Music Therapist

If you want to become a music therapist, you should possess some personal skill and talent in an instrument or musical composition, along with the desire to help others of all ages and abilities. Professionally, there are several additional requirements.

The field of music therapy has many educational and licensing standards because music therapists work with some of the most vulnerable individuals in clinical settings. Training starts with a bachelor’s degree from one of the 70 colleges and universities approved by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). This degree provides three entry-level foundations to the work of a music therapist.

1. Music foundations: music theory and history, composition and arranging skills, skills in one’s performance medium, functional music skills, conducting skills, and movement skills

2. Clinical foundations: therapeutic applications, principles, and the therapeutic relationship

3. Music therapy principles and foundations: understanding and applying therapeutic needs involving music, assessing clients, creating treatment plans, implementing therapy, measuring outcomes and evaluating clients, documentation, creating a discharge or aftercare plan, professional ethics, interprofessional collaboration, supervision and administration, and research methods

These are specified by the AMTA Professional Competencies. Higher degrees like master’s and doctoral degrees involve more advanced research and clinical practices in music therapy, and they may be required for most jobs within medical practices.

Once you have completed your bachelor’s degree in music therapy, you must sit for the board certification exam to receive your Music Therapist – Board Certified (MT-BC) license. This credential is awarded by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT), an organization separate from AMTA in order to maintain objective standards on professionalism in the field.

There are additional continuing education options, from higher degrees to supplementary certifications to membership with different organizations, which may be part of working in a specific clinic, managing a private practice, or even teaching other music therapists. Continuing education and working with professional organizations will only help you improve your practice as a music therapist. As a potential patient, you can ask music therapists about their education, including licensing, certification, and which organizations they are members of.

How Music Therapy Impacts the Brain

There are several different lobes in the brain.

Music can have an impact on all areas of the brain at the same time. By activating these areas, music therapy can bolster other healing processes, including immune response, heart rate and blood flow, thinking, remembering, feeling and processing feelings in a healthy way, speaking and listening, physical coordination and walking gait, and understanding time. Using music alongside standard medical practices, including physical therapy, prescription medication, and regular doctors’ visits, can greatly enhance treatment.

Studies have shown that music therapy can have an impact on various systems.

Conditions That Benefit From Music Therapy

Since music therapy has a great impact on several brain functions, it is applied to treating numerous diseases.

Approaches to Music Therapy

Music therapy may involve movement, playing an instrument, singing, or just listening to music. Below are some of the potential approaches to using music therapyand how they can benefit patients.

Over the course of treatment using music therapy, your therapist may apply several of these techniques, or they may choose to focus on one of them. If your treatment is short-term, there may be one or two approaches to treatment; if your music therapy is longer, over several months, you may get to experience several of the approaches in both groups and as an individual. You may even get homework from your therapist to apply music therapy in other ways in your life.

Risks to Music Therapy

Although music therapy has several wonderful applications and can be used alongside traditional medical interventions, it may not be appropriate for everyone. Music has a strong emotional and physical impact, and this can be both positive and negative. There are some downsides to music therapy.

Attempting music therapy on your own, or going to a music therapist who is not appropriately licensed or credentialled, may lead to some of the above problems. Again, not everyone responds to the same approaches to therapy. While it might not be right for everyone, working with a certified, clinical music therapist may be beneficial to some people.


How the Ear Works. Center for Music Therapy

History of Music Therapy. American Music Therapy Association

What Is Music Therapy. American Music Therapy Association

Professional Requirements for Music Therapists. American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

American Music Therapy Association Professional Competencies. American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

Alzheimer’s Disease: What Can Music Therapy Do for Those With Dementia? Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

Autism Spectrum Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health.

Autism Spectrum Disorders: Music Therapy and Autism. Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

Brain Injury: Music Therapy and Brain Injury. Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

Hearing Impaired: Music Therapy for the Hearing Impaired. Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

Mental Health: Music Therapy and Mental Health. Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

Pain: Music Therapy for Pain Management. Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

Palliative Care: Music Therapy and Palliative Care. Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

Physical Disabilities: Music Therapy for Physical Disabilities. Music Therapy Association of British Columbia.

The Impact of Music Therapy On Mental Health. (December 19, 2016). National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Music Therapy for Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders. (July 10, 2016). Healthy Place.

5 Problems Music Can Create. (August 15, 2014). Psychology Today.

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