What is a Music Therapist?

Also known as: Music Rehabilitation Therapist, Neurological Music Therapist.

A music therapist is part of an employment subgroup of creative arts therapists who use the arts to treat mental illness, provide support for individuals with disabilities, and to promote wellness and personal growth and creativity.

Music therapists create a therapeutic and supportive environment which taps into non-verbal processes to facilitate emotional, physical and mental change. It is effective with individuals who may have difficulty expressing themselves in normal ways; for example, children who have experienced trauma prior to the development of language skills, or people who have gone through profound trauma and cannot express it verbally. Children and adults who are developmentally disabled and unable to express themselves verbally can often communicate through the arts and music.

Music therapists use techniques like relaxation, guided imagery and improvisation, and they incorporate sound, music, and rhythm in a way to engage clients. Music therapy is a clinical and evidence-based therapy technique that has been proven to achieve individual and group goals when applied by a qualified professional.

Music is known to affect people not just physiologically by changing heart beat, blood pressure, temperature and breathing rate. Music also decreases feelings of isolation and lack of control, and it can open up spiritual vistas and help access and release repressed emotion. Music therapy is effective for anxiety reduction, depression, pain management, coping with stress, self-expression, and much more. Music is also a powerful means to promote group unity.

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What does a Music Therapist do?

Like any therapist, the music therapist must do a thorough assessment of client needs and strengths. Goals and objectives are identified, and a treatment program is developed. A good arts therapist will consider a range of artistic activities, and will not hesitate to refer a client to another practitioner if another creative modality is considered more effective.

The music therapist will devise a program of music therapy for an individual client, then evaluate and adjust the program as needed. This form of therapy is often used very effectively with groups. Music therapy can include listening, instrument playing, interpreting, song writing, musical entrainment, and engaging in other activities with a musical base. The music therapist also participates in the ongoing therapy plan for the patient and follow-up assessment and evaluation.

A music therapist uses concepts from multiple disciplines. These can include speech and language therapy, physical therapy, nursing, medicine, and psychology. Sometimes the music therapist just encourages clients in reflective listening. Sometimes he or she engages the group or individual in singing or writing music. Playing a musical instrument is a powerful form of therapy. Drumming, for example, is known to reduce stress and regulate heartbeat. Music can help control pain and improve post-operative outcomes. The music therapist is responsible for assessing each individual and situation and prescribing the best form of music treatment.

How to become a Music Therapist

Music therapists usually need at least a master's degree or the equivalent, with a major in psychology. A strong background in music and the arts is also essential. There are some undergraduate music therapy programs available for training at a lower level. In Canada, music therapists must also qualify for accreditation, which includes holding a bachelor's degree in music therapy, completing a 1000-hour supervised internship, and proof that they are well-rounded musicians.

In the U.S. music therapy is regulated by state. Some require a master's degree or higher, others use a specific qualification test for accreditation. The World Federation for Music Therapy is looking at development of professional standards that would be applicable world wide. Earning a degree in musical therapy may require proficiency in at least one musical instrument: guitar, piano, voice, music theory/history, percussion, and other instruments. More women than men tend to be music therapists, and most are self-employed professionals.


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