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Music Therapy

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is one of many “expressive therapies” (along with art, dance, drama, and poetry therapy) where credentialed music therapists use a variety of music interventions to help clients reach specific goals. These interventions often include:
  • Singing
  • Playing instruments
  • Songwriting
  • Movement to music
  • Listening to music
Common goals include improving:
  • Neurologic development
  • Speech and language skills
  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Coping skills
  • Emotional self-expression and regulation
  • Pain and anxiety management
Music therapists can work with clients one-on-one or in group settings. They may be employed in a facility, own a private practice, or provide contract services to families and facilities.
Music therapists serve a large variety of populations and clients, including:
  • Hospitals (pediatric and adult)
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospice and palliative care
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse facilities (adolescent and adult)
  • Special education schools
  • Drug and alcohol rehabilitation
  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Private practices

Can Music Therapy Help My Child?

Music therapy can be used to treat children and adults with a variety of diagnoses and conditions. Music therapists often work with individuals with these diagnoses:
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Intellectual disability
  • Dementia
  • Deaf and blind
  • Hospice
  • Medical conditions (chronic pain, cardiac conditions, respiration issues, etc.)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Rett syndrome
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Speech delays
  • Stroke
  • Substance use disorders
  • Traumatic brain injuries

How Does Music Therapy Work?

Assessment
Treatment follows an assessment aimed at understanding a child’s needs, strengths, and developmental capabilities. Assessments also help therapists determine a starting point for treatment. During an assessment session, the music therapists will observe:
  • Cognition
    • Memory skills (short-term and long-term)
    • Attention skills (e.g. maintaining attention despite distractions)
    • Ability to follow directions (one-step directions & multi-step directions)
  • Speech/Language
    • Speaking ability (e.g. sounds only, complete sentences, one- to two-word utterances)
    • Use of physical gestures
    • Use of eye contact
    • Ability to respond to questions (verbally & nonverbally)
    • Ability to initiate conversation
    • Speech intelligibility
    • Use of assistive communication devices or sign language
  • Motor/Physical
    • Ability to sit, hold head erect
    • Ability to stand
    • Ability to walk
    • Ability to grasp objects
    • Ability to reach with arms
  • Social/Emotional
    • Use of coping skills
    • Ability to express emotions
    • Ability to imitate behaviors of therapist or peers
    • Ability to share
    • Ability to wait turn
    • Ability to respond to the emotions of others
    • Affect & body language
  • Musical
    • Shows interest in musical stimulation
    • Sensory aversions
    • Ability to imitate rhythmic patterns by clapping/moving/playing instruments
    • Ability imitate musical patterns through singing or vocalizing
Treatment Planning and Implementation
After an assessment is completed, a formal report is given to the family. The music therapist will use the assessment and feedback from parents to recommend treatment goals and duration for your child. Individual music therapy sessions generally last between 30 – 60 minutes, depending on the child’s needs and tolerance. Frequency of therapy is determined by the therapist and family, but is often scheduled for once per week. Duration of therapy can range from months to years.
Example Goals
  • To improve verbal communication skills
    • Increase number of vocalizations through singing
    • Increase speech intelligibility through singing
  • To improve gross motor functioning
    • Improve arm functioning through instrument play
    • Improve gait ability (walking) through rhythmic exercises
  • To improve emotional expression and coping skills
    • Identify at least two coping skills
    • Identify and express feelings through song-sharing and songwriting

What Will Music Therapy Look Like?

Music therapy sessions are tailored to your child’s needs and therefore, can look very different from child to child. After determining goals to work on with your child, a music therapist will implement music therapy interventions that are designed to work on these goals. Oftentimes, your child will be involved in playing instruments, singing, and engaging in active music making with the therapist.
Other family members may be involved in the music therapy session if appropriate. Music therapists can help parents gain a better understanding of how to use music at home to help with everyday tasks and continue the progress of therapy. With continued reinforcement of using music at home, your child can achieve positive change that will last over time.

Why Music Therapy?

Music has a huge impact on our brains! Music is processed throughout the entire brain and therefore, it has many effects. Music can:
  • Reduce our perception of pain
  • Alter our breathing and heart rate
  • Distract us from unpleasant stimulation (such as needle sticks, IVs, chronic pain, and more)
  • Motivate us and direct our attention
By using musical elements such as the rhythmic beat of a drum or the melody of a song, music therapists can manipulate music to motivate and reinforce patients’ work.
For a list of research articles, please refer to the last section.

Access to Music Therapy

IDEA Act
Music therapy is considered a related service under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When music therapy is deemed necessary to help a child benefit from his/her special education, goals are documented on the Individualized Education Program (IEP) as a related service intervention. If applicable, this means that the school would be providing music therapy services to the child.
To find out if music therapy can be added as a related service, there are a few steps to take:
  1. An IEP meeting is held
  2. An evaluation is requested and conducted
  3. An IEP meeting is held to discuss results and the addition of the service
Insurance and Costs
Music Therapy is reimbursable as an out of network service with many insurance companies. You may contact your insurance provider or talk to your music therapist to find out if your insurance policy covers music therapy.
If music therapy is not reimbursable by insurance, ask your music therapist about the out-of-pocket costs.

What Credentials are Required as a Music Therapist?

Professional music therapists have bachelor's degrees or higher in music therapy from one of over 70 college and university programs approved by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). After completing 1200 hours in supervised clinical training and an accredited internship, music therapists are eligible to take the national board certification exam to become credentialed music therapists (MT-BC). For more information, contact the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

How Can You Find a Music Therapist In Your Area?

Resources

Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Support

Music Therapy and Special Education (PDF Document 88 KB)
Provides a short list of ways in which music therapy can be part of special education, and the benefits of music therapy for children in special education; American Music Therapy Association.

Music Therapy and Autism (PDF Document 61 KB)
Four-page article that describes research on music therapy and autism, including an overview of scientific literature; American Music Therapy Association.

Music Therapy and Pain (PDF Document 34 KB)
Includes a music therapy protocol for pain management, and describes how music therapy can help with pain. This article also features an overview of scientific literature about music therapy; American Music Therapy Association.

Music Therapy and Children with Medical Problems (PDF Document 188 KB)
Many medical needs, including diabetes, headaches, and cardiac conditions can be helped by music therapy. This four-page article explains how medical patients can benefit from music therapy, and includes information about what to expect from music therapy; American Music Therapy Association.

Music Therapy for Young Children (PDF Document 186 KB)
Information on how young children can benefit from music therapy. The article includes a case study on how music therapy can help families; American Music Therapy Association.

Music Therapy In Response to Crisis and Trauma (PDF Document 180 KB)
Music therapy can make a difference for people affected by trauma and crisis, such as through reducing stress and anxiety. This article also provides general information about what to expect from music therapy; American Musical Therapy Association.

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Music Therapy

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Helpful Articles

Son JT, Kim SH.
The effects of self-selected music on anxiety and pain during burn dressing changes.
Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006;36(1):159-68. PubMed abstract

Tan X, Yowler CJ, Super DM, Fratianne RB.
The efficacy of music therapy protocols for decreasing pain, anxiety, and muscle tension levels during burn dressing changes: a prospective randomized crossover trial.
J Burn Care Res. 2010;31(4):590-7. PubMed abstract

Allred KD, Byers JF, Sole ML.
The effect of music on postoperative pain and anxiety.
Pain Manag Nurs. 2010;11(1):15-25. PubMed abstract

Leardi S, Pietroletti R, Angeloni G, Necozione S, Ranalletta G, Del Gusto B.
Randomized clinical trial examining the effect of music therapy in stress response to day surgery.
Br J Surg. 2007;94(8):943-7. PubMed abstract

Nilsson U.
The anxiety- and pain-reducing effects of music interventions: a systematic review.
AORN J. 2008;87(4):780-807. PubMed abstract

Walworth D, Rumana CS, Nguyen J, Jarred J.
Effects of live music therapy sessions on quality of life indicators, medications administered and hospital length of stay for patients undergoing elective surgical procedures for brain.
J Music Ther. 2008;45(3):349-59. PubMed abstract

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2013; last update/revision: March 2019
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Kayla Zuckerman, MA, SCMT, MT-BC
Authoring history
2013: first version: Tamara (Tony) Ollerton, MA, SCMT, MT-BC Music TherapyA
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer