What is Music Therapy?

I was one of those kids. You know, the kid who knows what career she wants almost from birth. Well, mine wasn’t from birth, but I can actually remember the day when someone told me about this thing called “music therapy.”

I was 14 years old, had been in the school band for several years (some classmates called us “band jocks”), and I played guitar. Until that point, all I knew one could do with a music career was teach or perform. No. And no.

Yet, music was the only extra activity that I stuck with. Sports came and went with me becoming bored and annoyed with the schedule before the season ended. But I never dreamed of quitting band despite the social implications.

In fact, I kept doing more—I started taking singing lessons at my school and then privately. And out of the blue, my teacher started a really fateful conversation with me. The dreaded question: What do you want to do for a living?

I had no idea. I had really been thinking about it. I wanted to help people and knew I was smart enough to be in the medical field. But it didn’t really make me excited. When I shared these thoughts with her, she told me about music therapy.

In her version, music therapists prescribed music the way a doctor might prescribe a medication. While that’s not true, even my 14-year-old self could see music therapy was such a perfect fit for me.

I started the journey of learning what a career in music therapy would really look like. And some 20 years later, I still find the general public either doesn’t know about music therapy or doesn’t understand what it is.

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “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.”

To my music therapist ears who answers this question day in and day out, this is such a beautiful definition that answers just about every question people ask. To the casual reader, it makes it clear as mud. Let me break it down piece by piece.

Music therapy is evidence-based.

Research has been an integral part of music therapy from the beginning and is ongoing. It’s an exciting field with implications for psychology, rehabilitation programs, special education, end of life care, and individuals with chronic disease just to name a few. A quick search on PubMed leads one to an understanding of all the research going on for music therapy.

So while music itself is often intuitive, subconscious, and sometimes primal, the research around music therapy is not.

Music therapy uses music interventions.

Maybe that’s a no-brainer, but the types of music and the ways we use music are distinct. Rather than playing music in the background while doing something else with a client, music therapists use music as a tool. Music is the swiss army knife of therapeutic tools.

There are so many kinds and functions. There is music for moving and music for relaxing. Music for stimulating conversation and reminiscing. There is music for helping with communication. And then there is music for creating.

Field wide-music therapists use music for all of these purposes with a wide range of populations. So while anyone can press “Play,” a music therapist will do so much more with that music.

Music therapy is individualized and within a therapeutic relationship.

Remember how I thought I may be writing prescriptions for music like a physician writes prescriptions for medications? Nope.

Music therapy is highly individualized. What works well for one client could have an opposite effect on another. A client’s preferences, culture, and history have to be accounted for in addition to the needs of the client.

We always look to the client first to find what will support them towards their goals. That can even change on particular days. Many times we can walk into a setting expecting one thing and find another. Then we rely on that individual’s needs in that moment to guide the session.

It is only music therapy within a therapeutic relationship. I can write blog posts, explain the function of music, and make playlists for friends and strangers all day long. But I’m not doing music therapy until I enter into that therapeutic relationship with a client. That is where the music therapy starts.

Music therapists have credentials and there are approved music therapy programs.

This is the one that I get a lot: ”What is your degree?” My degree is in music therapy. I went to Illinois State University to get it. The program is approved by the American Music Therapy Association.

This is important to know especially for anyone considering a career in music therapy. Often I hear about a university who told a student they could double major to create their own music therapy degree. This usually consists of taking both psychology courses and music courses and it does NOT yield a music therapy degree.

If no one shares different information, that student could do all the hard work of double majoring in music and psychology and still not have a clue on how to do what they set out to do.

Yes, there are distinct courses and departments for music therapy. They are separate from the music education and performance departments. You can not double major to create a music therapy degree where one does not exist.

Additionally, in many states in the US (including Missouri) anyone can call themselves a music therapist. They may feel like they have great reason to do so, but may not have gone through the kind of education that a board-certified music therapist goes through.

As with any therapeutic tool, inappropriately using music therapy can be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. But people don’t always understand that since music is so ubiquitous. But just as we never confuse the help and advice of our friends with the services of a clinically trained therapist, casual listening to music is not the same as music therapy.

Happily, state licensure is gaining momentum to help music therapists avoid the confusion surrounding this.

What does music therapy look like?

In the years since I started my career, my music therapy practice has changed drastically. I used to work with school aged children and now I work with adults and their babies. I used to help kids learn to count, read, share toys, and talk. Now I help mothers have fulfilling, safe, and empowering births.

But regardless of the location or group of people, music therapy is using music for non-musical purposes. My clients are active participants in their sessions. I don’t create or play music for them, I create and play music with them.

We might write a song, talk about lyrics, use an instrument to express feelings or thoughts instead of words, or put a mantra to a tune. Music therapy creates the opportunity for clients to share their experiences and feelings or learn something new in a setting that is inviting, non-threatening, and often fun.

Music therapy during birth provides a connection to familiarity, love, and peace at an unfamiliar and sometimes fearful time. It helps women move, breathe, visualize, and connect with their partners and with their births. And it helps parents connect with themselves, connect with each other, and bond with their babies.

When I was 14, I had no idea where a career in music therapy would lead me. But I’m grateful that my vocal coach had the insight to tell me about music therapy—even if it wasn’t quite what she thought it was.

In the near future, I’ll be sharing how music is integrated at Aquarius Wellness from the perspective of a music therapist.

Maura Marksteiner graduated with her music therapy degree from Illinois State University in 2005. She is the founder of St. Louis Birth Rhythms where she and her team help families have fulfilling, safe, and empowering births. She also provides health and wellness services for individuals and corporations. Her passion is helping families and individuals connect to their power to be healthy and happy through lifestyle choices. To contact Maura, please email maura@stlbr.com.

Categories: Therapy