What is music therapy?
Music therapy is the use of music and/or elements of music (like sound, rhythm and harmony) to accomplish goals, like reducing stress or improving quality of life. A healthcare provider called a music therapist talks to you to learn more about your needs, music preferences and experiences, and designs each session specifically for you. They also evaluate your progress each step of the way, and may work with your other healthcare providers to coordinate your care.
The number of sessions you have, the length of each session and what you do depends on your individual needs and goals. Music therapy experiences may include singing, playing instruments or writing music. Some sessions may involve listening to music and talking about its meaning.
Healthcare providers use music as therapy in many contexts, including at the bedside for people in hospitals. However, music therapy isn’t the same as listening to music to help you relax. Music can certainly be a powerful tool for calming and healing. But the definition of clinical musical therapy states that a qualified music therapist must plan and lead the session within a therapeutic relationship for it to qualify as this form of treatment.
Music therapy helps people of all ages (children, adolescents and adults) and from all walks of life. It may benefit many different aspects of your well-being, including:
What conditions can music therapy manage?
Music therapists use this form of treatment to manage a vast range of conditions. It’s typically a complementary therapy. This means it’s part of a larger treatment plan that may include medications or other interventions. Research shows music therapy can offer benefits to people with:
Can my child benefit from music therapy?
Yes. Music therapists work with people of all ages, including young children and adolescents. They can design sessions to suit your child’s unique needs. Music therapy may support many aspects of your child’s development, including their:
Do I need to have musical talent to participate in music therapy?
No, you don’t need musical skills or talents to participate. Music therapy is open to everyone regardless of their skill level or background. Your music therapist will learn about you and any musical background you might have before designing sessions to meet your needs.
Where does music therapy take place?
Music therapy takes place in many different settings, including:
- Nursing homes.
- Senior centers.
- Outpatient clinics.
- Mental health centers.
- Residences for people with developmental disabilities.
- Treatment facilities for people with substance use disorders.
- Correctional facilities.
Is music therapy outpatient or inpatient?
It depends on the individual program. You may be able to come in for sessions during the day. Or a music therapist may come to you while you’re in a hospital or school. Sometimes, music therapy happens in groups.
What happens before music therapy?
Your music therapist will assess your needs and strengths. You may discuss your:
- Emotional well-being.
- Physical health.
- Social functioning.
- Perceptual/motor skills.
- Communication abilities.
- Cognitive skills.
- Musical background, skills and preferences.
- Trauma history.
- Trauma triggers.
Your music therapist will work with you to identify goals and design appropriate experiences for your session. In doing so, they’ll consider:
- Your music preferences and interests.
- Your age and developmental level.
- Your physical and cognitive abilities.
- Your trauma triggers.
What happens during a music therapy session?
Your music therapist will guide you in making and/or listening to music during your session. You may do one or more of the following:
- Create music. You compose music, write lyrics or make up music together.
- Sing music. You use your voice to share a piece of music.
- Play an instrument. You use an instrument like a guitar, drums or piano to share music.
- Improvise. You and your therapist work together to make music and sounds that reflect how you’re feeling. This may involve singing and/or playing instruments.
- Move to music. This can be as simple as tapping your toes together or as complicated as a coordinated dance.
- Listen to music. With directed listening, your therapist makes music or plays a recording, and you listen to it. You then talk about the music and use it to help process your emotions or experiences. Your therapist may also play music to relax you, using the rhythm to guide you in breathing or stretching.
- Discuss lyrics. You read or listen to the lyrics of a song and talk about their meaning.
Types of music therapy
Music therapists use many different approaches to meet your needs. In general, the types of experiences you might have fall into two broad categories:
- Active interventions: For these experiences, you take an active role in making music with your therapist. For example, you may sing or play an instrument.
- Receptive interventions: Instead of making music, you listen to music that your therapist makes or plays from a recording. You may spend some time discussing the music together as a way to process your thoughts and feelings.
What should I expect after my music therapy session?
Your music therapist will evaluate the effectiveness of the session and determine if it met your goals. You may choose to participate in multiple sessions.
Risks / Benefits
What are the potential benefits of music therapy?
The benefits you gain depend on the condition or symptoms you’re treating and your goals for music therapy. Your music therapist can explain more about what you might expect in your unique situation. In general, research shows that music therapy may:
- Help you relax.
- Help you explore your emotions.
- Reduce anxiety or depression.
- Ease your stress levels.
- Regulate your mood.
- Strengthen your communication skills.
- Improve speaking and language skills.
- Build social skills.
- Strengthen your self-confidence.
- Help you form healthy coping skills.
- Develop your problem-solving skills.
- Reduce perceived levels of pain.
- Improve your physical coordination, motor functions and movement.
- Improve your quality of life.
What are the risks of music therapy?
Music therapy is safe and low risk. But it’s possible for music to trigger painful or unexpected memories for you.
To lower the chances of this happening, your music therapist will talk to you about your life experiences. These include any history of trauma or other aspects that may influence your response to music. Sharing this information, to the extent that you’re comfortable, will allow your therapist to tailor the session to your needs. Your therapist will do everything possible to create a comfortable, safe and meaningful experience for you.
Recovery and Outlook
How many music therapy sessions do I need?
It depends on your treatment goals. You’ll work with your music therapist to decide how many sessions you’d like, how long they should be and how often you should meet.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Contact your music therapist any time you want to discuss:
- Your music therapy treatment goals.
- How you’re feeling in response to music therapy.
- The timing or scheduling of your appointments.
- Any questions or concerns you have.
Contact your primary care physician or other healthcare providers if you want to discuss:
- Other aspects of your treatment plan, including medications or their side effects.
- New or changing symptoms.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between music therapy and therapeutic music?
Music therapy is a healthcare profession in which a qualified music therapist designs your sessions with specific, individualized goals in mind. Therapeutic music is a method for relaxing you or lifting your emotions in times of need. It doesn’t require a music therapist and can involve a range of experiences. This can be as simple as listening to calming music through headphones.
Music can positively influence your emotions wherever you hear it, including in hospitals or schools. This is why some healthcare professionals, like nurses, play music at the bedside to help people who are recovering or in pain. But these experiences aren’t the same as music therapy, in which a music therapist designs a treatment plan for you and guides each session.
A music therapist can help you understand more about the unique aspects of music therapy and how it may benefit you. They can also explain how you may use music in your daily life, outside of your sessions, to enjoy other benefits.
How can I become a music therapist?
In the U.S., you can become a music therapist by:
- Earning a bachelor’s degree in music therapy. The American Music Therapy Association offers a list of colleges and universities with approved programs. Your curriculum will include classes in music, music therapy, psychology and biology, among other areas. You’ll also complete 1,200 hours of clinical training, which includes an internship in a healthcare or educational setting.
- Getting certified. The Certification Board for Music Therapists issues a national exam that sets the standard for music therapy professionals. Passing this exam gives you the Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC) credential. You’ll need to engage in professional development activities to stay certified. Board certification is voluntary, but many states require it for you to legally work as a music therapist.
You may need to meet additional requirements, like obtaining a state license, depending on the state where you live or work. You can learn more by contacting the American Music Therapy Association or speaking with a mentor or professor.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Music can bring people together, and it can also heal. Music therapy builds upon these possibilities of music in a clinical context. Together with your music therapist, you’ll set goals and work toward achieving them. Your therapist will talk with you each step of the way to see how you’re feeling. They’ll design each session just for you and continue to adapt sessions to your evolving interests and needs.
It’s important to keep in mind that music therapy isn’t just for children. Adults of all ages can also benefit. If you’re interested in music therapy for your child, talk to your pediatrician about how you can connect with a music therapist to learn more.