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What is Music Therapy? March: Music Therapy Awareness Month

What is Music Therapy?

“So, what exactly is music therapy?” Most music therapists encounter this question on a daily basis; you may not know the excitement we feel when we meet people who know of our profession. In fact, I recall one day when my mum called me to say, “I met someone today who knew what music therapy was! It was so nice to not have to explain what you do to someone!” Even my own mother feels the frustration of having to always explain music therapy.  Seeing as March is music therapy month, we thought we would take this opportunity to expand on the question: What is music therapy?

Music therapy began making gains as a profession after World War II. It was discovered that music was one of few activities that soothed returning soldiers of their traumatic experiences. Having live music in veteran hospitals decreased patient anxiety and pain perceptions, promoted verbal emotional processing and helped create a social bond between veterans as well as the staff that cared for them. Music therapy training programs began in the United States in 1944, and in Canada in 1976. Many Canadians were using music in medical settings as early as the 1950’s and the Canadian Association of Music Therapy was officially formed in 1974.

The Canadian Association of Music Therapy (CAMT) defines music therapy as:

“The skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development.”

Canadian Association for Music Therapy / Association de Musicothérapie du Canada Annual General Meeting, Vancouver, British Columbia, May 6, 1994

When I’m asked what I do as a music therapist I usually reply that I use music to meet non-musical goals. I work in a similar fashion as a physical/occupational/speech therapist in that I assess each client and create an individualized treatment plan. I just use music as my medium.

Music therapy can be difficult to define as we work in a variety of areas of healthcare and what music therapy is to a child with special needs may be different than an adult in palliative care. Music therapists work in many areas including but not limited to:

  • Acquired and Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disabilities
  • Developmental Disabilities
  • Emotional Trauma
  • Geriatric Care
  • Mental Health
  • Neonatal Care
  • Oncology
  • Palliative Care
  • Physical Disabilities
  • Speech and Language Impairments
  • Youth at Risk

Music therapists work on a broad selection of goals with their clients and use a wide range of interventions to treat each client. Common music therapy goals relate to creative self-expression, communication, and social skills. Music therapists use interventions including but not limited to singing, instrument playing, songwriting/lyric analysis, rhythmic activities, and improvisation.

Many people are surprised to learn about the training that being a music therapist requires. Music therapy is a specialized 4-year degree program, and is offered at 5 Canadian Universities. The coursework varies from school to school and covers areas such as musical competency, clinical music therapy skills, psychology, counselling skills, creative art, and includes supervised clinical practicums. Following the 4-year degree is a 1000- hour supervised clinical internship.

Music therapy is a very rewarding career and the field of music therapy has grown exponentially in the past ten years. With recent brain imaging advancements science and the medical world is finally catching up to what music therapists have known all along – music therapy works and improves the quality of life of many individuals. If you still feel unsure of what music therapy is, make an appointment with one of our qualified music therapists and see for yourself how music therapy works!


Further resources:

Canadian Association for Music Therapy: www.musictherapy.ca

Music Therapy Association of Ontario: www.musictherapyontario.com

American Association for Music Therapy: www.musictherapy.org

Voices Online Music Therapy Journal: www.voices.no

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