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What is Music Therapy?

By Lindsey Puc

People often say that music is therapeutic. Whether you’re listening to sad music when you’re feeling down, listening to and singing worship music with members of your congregation, or singing your favorite songs at the top of your lungs in the shower, music has a peculiar way of speaking to our very souls. Even though music from different cultures and eras can sound very different from one another, the fact that music has been a part of virtually every human society stands as a testament to how universal an experience music is.

In addition to my job at IM of CNY, I am currently a junior at Nazareth College pursuing my Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy. With this degree, I will eventually go on to complete a music therapy internship, take my music therapy board examinations, and finally be a practicing music therapist. What does it mean to be a music therapist, however, and how is music therapy different from what I described above?

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is defined as “hthe 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 put it simply, music therapy is an evidence-based practice in which a trained music therapist helps an individual to accomplish non-musical goals using music-based methods. Music therapists can work with people of all ages and in a variety of different settings including, but not limited to, public schools, hospitals, nursing homes, hospice/palliative care facilities, psychiatric rehabilitation, prisons, and in private practice. There are also different specializations within the field of music therapy. One example of this is an area of music therapy called Nordoff-Robbins, which is heavily based on collaborative musical improvisation between the music therapist and the client.

Regardless of the population, a music therapist will always start out a client’s treatment by performing an assessment to observe what the client’s strengths and needs seem to be. Using these, the music therapist can then determine goals to work on throughout treatment and create musical interventions to target these goals. For example, if a music therapist were to begin treatment with an older adult with Alzheimer’s Disease, they may observe during the assessment that the individual struggles with recalling long-term memories. The music therapist may then set the goal of long-term memory recollection. They could help the client work towards this goal by leading the client in singing a familiar song, and then asking them questions about their memories of that song afterwards. The music therapist, being an evidence-based practitioner, will take data on the client’s progress towards the goal during each session, so that a concrete measure of the music therapy’s effectiveness can be seen over time.

Just like in Integrative Medicine, it is imperative in music therapy to consider the whole person in your care, and not just a diagnosis. Music is such an intimate experience that it can bring up very intense emotions or associations in a session. There is no such thing as a perfect musical intervention that will result in the exact same outcome for each client. Each client has different life experiences and musical experiences that a music therapist must center their care around. The client-centered nature of music therapy is part of the beauty of this field, and I feel like it is quite similar to Integrative Medicine in this way.

Not everyone will receive music therapy in their lifetime, and not everyone needs to receive music therapy. It is also important to note that music therapy can only truly be performed by a credentialed music therapist. However, you can use music to enhance your own mood and general wellbeing. I would strongly encourage you to partake in whatever sort of musical activity brings you joy. For some people, that involves singing or playing an instrument for fun. Even if you don’t enjoy making music, music-listening can be very healing and fulfilling. I personally like to make different playlists on Spotify that each correspond to a different situation or mood that I am in. There is no correct way to be musical, and the most important thing is to participate in music in a way that makes you feel whole.

I hope that you have learned a little bit more about music therapy! If you would like to learn more about the field, you can visit the American Music Therapy Association webpage at

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