Carla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC
Music Therapy 101
You've heard the phrase "music therapy" before. You watched the sweet Facebook video of a girl singing to her brother with Down Syndrome. You remember the American Idol contestant whose stutter completely went away when he sang. The idea of using music to help people makes sense to you, but you are not really sure what makes it therapy or what music therapists do. This post is for you!
What is music therapy and why does it work?
Music makes us feel good. It triggers our emotions, brings back memories, and moves us in ways we find difficult to describe. Music motivates us, encourages us, cheers us up, and validates our deepest feelings. As a therapy, music is a powerful way to bring about change and promote healing and growth.
Music therapy is a healthcare profession that uses music intentionally to help clients reach a variety of developmental, health, and wellness goals. Music therapists work with the same people who seek help from physical, occupational, speech and psychotherapists. It is the tool that we use in therapy— music— that makes music therapy unique.
Music therapy requires three things: a credentialed music therapist, a client seeking growth or change in some area of functioning, and music. It is the relationship that develops between the therapist and client, through music, that makes music therapy.
Why is music a useful tool for therapy?
Much of that answer can be found in the ways music is processed in our brains.
Music is a whole brain activity. Listening to and participating in music activates many distinct areas of the brain. Rhythm, pitch, timbre, harmony, and tempo are all processed in different regions of the brain, and music requires these regions work together in order to create a unified experience of music. Music also requires integration of both the more analytical left hemisphere and the more creative right hemisphere. In fact, neurologists have suggested that music activates more parts of the brain than any other single human activity. This has led researchers to argue that the human brain is hardwired to respond to music.
Music also has a direct impact on our physiology. It can change our heart rate and blood pressure, and can impact hormones and neurochemicals such as endorphins, dopamine, and cortisol. Music therapists use this knowledge to help clients reduce pain perception, decrease anxiety, and help clients overcome addiction.
Music is motivating. The connection between music and our emotions also lies deep within our brains. Listening to music activates regions associated with reward, motivation, and arousal. The power of music to motivate us is so powerful that some sports competitions have even banned listening to music during races, as it can improve performance so much it is considered a “competitive edge”.
Music therapists use the motivational power of music to help clients with a wide range of challenges meet their goals and accomplish new things. Music therapy can help clients associate difficult tasks with the feel-good chemicals released when we engage in music. Music can motivate children to communicate and connect with others, or motivate adults to engage in physical activity.
Music gets us moving. Our bodies are activated by rhythm. Rhythm is something highly organized that occurs across time. Moving our bodies can be described in a similar way. Research demonstrates that our bodies naturally entrain to— or match— a rhythmic beat. Or more simply, when we hear a beat, we tap our foot. The ability and desire to move when we hear music is innate and spontaneous. Music therapists utilize this quality in therapy, using music as a tool to help people with a range of movement disorders. Music provides an auditory cue for movement, and can help people with Parkinson’s Disease, stroke, or traumatic brain injuries improve their gait, balance, and speed of movement.
Music builds upon strengths and abilities. Music is available to everyone, no matter their age, culture, interests, ability, or activity levels. Everyone can respond to music in some way, whether it is through a change in heart rate or by picking up an instrument and playing along. A music therapist uses each individual’s response to music to create opportunities for them to succeed through music. Music therapy builds upon what each person can do, and using the flexible nature of music, therapists can change any element of the music to maximize strengths while promoting growth.
Music is fun! Music brings us pleasure and makes us feel good. And when something feels good, we want to keep doing it. Making music a central part of therapy means people come to enjoy their music therapy sessions, even while making measurable progress towards their goals.
What do Music Therapists Do?
Music therapists bring together the many ways music can impact us with targeted interventions that address a wide variety of non-musical goals. These goals range from the physical (improving gait and balance, improving fine and gross motor skills, decreasing pain perception), to the emotional (decreasing anxiety, improving mood, increasing coping skills). Some goals target cognitive skills such as memory, focus, and attention, while others improve communication through verbal and nonverbal expression, diction, and breath control.
Like all therapies, music therapy involves an assessment of current functioning followed by the development of interventions targeted towards areas of needs. Unlike other therapies, these interventions involve music. We engage with music through instrument play, singing, improvisation, songwriting, or simply listening. Interventions might be implemented one on one, as in individual therapy, or with a group of people participating in a music therapy group.
Music therapists are credentialed healthcare professionals with extensive training in music, psychology, research, and therapy principles. To become a music therapist, one must complete an approved music therapy degree program, including 1200 hours of clinical practice. This is followed by a national certification exam that designates the credential MT-BC or music therapist- board certified. There are currently just over 7,500 board certified music therapists working in the United States.
How do I learn more about getting services?
Board-certified music therapists work in all 50 states, serving clients in a wide range of settings. In order to find an updated list of the certified music therapists near you, visit the Certification Board for Music Therapists.