Frequently Asked Questions
about Music Therapy



- What is music therapy?
- With whom is music therapy used?
- Where do music therapists work?
- What do the clients do in music therapy?
- Do the clients have to be musicians?
- What determines how the music will be used?
- What do music therapists actually do?
- What qualities should a music therapist have?
- How do I become a music therapist?
- How do I select a college or university?
- How should I prepare for admission to a program?
- What are certification requirements?
- What are the career possibilities?
- How is the job market?
- How much do music therapists earn?
- What organizations represent music therapy?
- Does music therapy exist in other countries?
- How do I learn more about music therapy?
- What books should I read first?



Music therapy is an interpersonal process in which the therapist uses music and all of its facets-physical, emotional, mental, social, aesthetic, and spiritual-to help clients to improve or maintain their health. In some instances, the client's needs are addressed directly through music; in others they are addressed through the relationships that develop between the client and therapist.



Music therapy is used with individuals of all ages and with a variety of conditions, including: psychiatric disorders, medical problems, physical handicaps, sensory impairments, developmental disabilities, substance abuse, communication disorders, interpersonal problems, and aging. It is also used to: improve learning, build self-esteem, reduce stress, support physical exercise, and facilitate a host of other health-related activities.


Music therapists work in general hospitals, psychiatric facilities, schools, prisons, community centers, training institutes, private practices, and universities.



What makes music therapy different from every other form of therapy is its reliance on music. Thus, every session involves the client in a musical experience of some kind. The main ones are improvising, re-creating, composing, and listening to music.

  • In those sessions which involve improvising, the client makes up his or her own music extemporaneously, singing or playing whatever arises in the moment. The client may improvise freely, responding spontaneously to the sounds as they emerge, or the client may improvise according to the specific musical directions given by the therapist. Often the client is asked to improvise sound portraits of feelings, events, persons, or situations that are being explored in therapy. The client may improvise with the therapist, with other clients, or alone, depending on the therapeutic objective.
  • In those sessions which involve re-creating music, the client sings or plays precomposed music. This kind of music experience may include: learning how to produce vocal or instrumental sounds, imitating musical phrases, learning to sing by rote, using musical notation, participating in sing-alongs, practicing, taking music lessons, performing a piece from memory, working out the musical interpretation of a composition, participating in a musical show or drama, and so forth.
  • In those sessions which involve composing, the therapist helps the client to write songs, lyrics, or instrumental pieces, or to create any kind of musical product, such as music videos or audiotape programs. Usually the therapist simplifies the process by engaging the client in easier aspects of the task (e.g., generating a melody, or writing the lyrics of a song), and by taking responsibility for more technical aspects (e.g., harmonization, notation).
  • In those sessions which involve listening, the client takes in and reacts to live or recorded music. The listening experience may focus on physical, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual aspects of the music, and the client may respond through activities such as: relaxation or meditation, structured or free movement, perceptual tasks, free-association, story-telling, imaging, reminiscing, drawing, and so forth. The music used for such experiences may be live or recorded improvisations, performances or compositions by the client or therapist, or commercial recordings of music literature in various styles (e.g., classical, popular, rock, jazz, country, spiritual, new age).
  • In addition to these musical types of experiences, music therapists often engage clients in verbal discussions. Clients may be encouraged to talk about the music, their reactions to it, or any thoughts, images, or feelings that were evoked during the experience. Clients may also be encouraged to express themselves through the other arts, such as drawing, painting, dance, drama or poetry. Music therapy sessions for children often include various games or play activities which involve music.


No, clients do not have to be musicians to participate in or benefit from music therapy. In fact, because most clients have not had previous musical training, music therapy sessions are always designed to take advantage of the innate tendencies of all human beings to make and appreciate music at their own developmental levels.

  • Music therapists believe that all individuals, regardless of age or musical background, have a basic capacity for musical expression and appreciation. This basic capacity does not require the special talents or extensive training that highly accomplished musicians have, but rather stems from general learnings and achievements that occur during the normal process of human development. Put another way, the process of human development prepares everyone to be a music-maker and music-lover–at a basic, but not necessarily professional, level. This basic or normal capacity for music includes the potential for learning to: sing, play simple instruments, move to music, react to the elements of music, perceive relationships between sounds, remember music, image to music, and ascribe meaning to musical experience.
  • Of course, in clinical situations, music therapists often encounter clients who have physical or mental impairments that interfere with these basic musical potentials. In fact, much can be learned about the nature of the client's impairment by assessing which of the basic musical potentials are missing or inadequately developed. For example, a client with a communication disorder may be unable to: sing, articulate lyrics, reproduce rhythms or melodies, order sound sequences, or participate in a musical ensemble–depending upon the specific nature of the disorder.
  • Care is always taken to adapt music therapy experiences to the capabilities of the client and to avoid anything that might cause harm or unnecessary pain of any kind. Music therapists also screen clients who may have adverse psychological or psychophysiological reactions to musical participation. Another important concern is the client's preferences with regard to types of musical activities, style of music, and medium of expression.


Music therapy sessions are designed with several factors in mind. First and foremost, the therapist has to select the types of music experience to be used according to the goals of therapy and the needs of the client. Each of the music experiences described above requires something different from the client, and has a potentially different effect. For example, improvising and composing are both creative, but one is done extemporaneously and the other is not. Moreover, the improviser produces his/her own music, while the composer relies upon a performer. Continuing in this comparison, creating one's own music is quite different from re-creating or performing music already composed by someone else. A performer has to faithfully convey the musical ideas of another person, while an improviser or composer deals only with his or her own ideas. Finally, listening is quite different from the other types of music experience because it involves taking in and receiving the music, without being actively involved in its creation or production. The listener is active in a different way from the improviser, composer, and performer.

  • The therapeutic implications of these differences are myriad. For example, improvisation is most appropriate for clients who need to develop spontaneity, creativity, freedom of expression, communication, and interpersonal skills–as these are the basic requirements of improvising. Many different clients manifest these needs, from emotionally disturbed children to acting out adolescents, and from developmentally delayed children to adults with psychiatric disorders. Improvising enables these clients to communicate and share feelings with others, while also helping them to organize their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way.
  • Re-creative experiences are most appropriate for clients who need to: develop sensorimotor skills, learn adaptive behaviors, maintain reality orientation, master different role behaviors, identify with the feelings and ideas of others, or work cooperatively towards common goals–as these are basic requirements of singing or playing pre-composed music. For example, individual singing lessons can help individuals who have speech impairments to help improve their articulation or fluency. In contrast, group singing can build reality orientation in elderly individuals, or help mentally retarded people develop adaptive behavior, or build cohesiveness in a dysfunctional family or group.
  • Playing instruments can help physically disabled clients to develop gross and fine motor coordination. When combined with reading notation, playing instruments can help learning disabled children to develop auditory-motor or visual-motor integration. With emotionally disturbed children, instrumental ensembles can be used to overcome behavior problems and to control impulsivity. Instruments can also help mentally retarded individuals to better understand the world of objects.
  • Activities involving composing music are used with clients who need to learn how to make decisions and commitments, and to find ways of working economically and within certain limitations. Often the idea expressed in a composition is a thought or feeling which is important to the person's life. Perhaps the best example is song-writing. With hospitalized children, writing songs can be a means of expressing and understanding their fears, and then leaving them there on the paper! Song-writing can also provide adults dying of cancer with a container for expressing their feelings–about life and death–while also serving as a parting gift to loved ones. Clients with drug or alcohol addictions often find group song-writing to be an excellent vehicle for examining irrational beliefs and fears, and for documenting their intention to change.
  • Music listening experiences are used with clients who need to be activated or soothed physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually–as these are the kinds of responses that music listening elicits. For example, hospitalized patients find music listening helpful in relaxing, reducing stress, managing pain, and regulating body functions such as heart rate, breathing. It can also be arousing, energizing, and reassuring. With psychiatric patients, listening to songs invariably accesses ideas and thoughts that need to be examined and discussed, while also bringing to the surface feelings that need to be expressed and shared. With individuals in psychotherapy, music listening can be used to stimulate images, fantasies, associations, and memories, all of which contribute immeasurably to the process. And with elderly individuals, listening to music can facilitate structured reminiscence or a review of their lives.
  • With learning disabled and mentally retarded children, perceptual listening tasks can be used to build auditory processing skills. Listening to songs and following the lyrics can also help these children to learn and memorize colors, numbers, vocabulary, behavior sequences and a host of other academic subjects. Finally, with all client populations music listening is of inimitable value in bringing about spiritual highs or peak experiences. Such experiences instill hope and courage, while reaffirming the beauty of life.
  • The subtle and wonderful thing about music therapy is that, in actuality, every musical experience can be adapted to meet a broad spectrum of client needs. For example consider how: improvising can be adapted to explore experiences of structure as well as freedom: re-creating music can be adapted to encourage free self-expression as well as compliance with the score; composing can be adapted to require spontaneity as well as planned decision-making; and listening can be adapted to be active as well as passive, or physical as well as intellectual.


Working as a music therapist essentially involves preparing, conducting, evaluating and documenting sessions with clients. Working with a client usually begins before the first session. The first step is to collect the necessary background information by reviewing any written records or referrals that may be available. Then in the first session, the music therapist usually conducts an assessment to determine the client's strengths and therapeutic needs. In a music therapy assessment, information on how the client makes, responds to, and relates to music is collected and analyzed, and then related to other aspects of the client's life. Based on the assessment findings, the music therapist formulates goals, sometimes with input from the client, the client's family, other professionals, or an interdisciplinary team of clinicians. Care is taken that the goals are realistic enough to be accomplished within the time frame set for therapy. Once goals have been set, the music therapist makes a treatment plan outlining possible strategies and music experiences that might be helpful in meeting the client's needs. In institutional settings, a meeting is usually held to coordinate treatment efforts and to formulate a program plan. As a result, the client is placed in individual, family, or group sessions, and the treatment phase of music therapy begins. Then after working with the client for a sufficient time, the music therapist conducts periodic evaluations to determine whether the methods of treatment are effective and whether the client is making any progress in reaching the prescribed goals, When necessary, adjustments are made in the goals or methods. Finally, when the time comes for ending therapy, the music therapist prepares the client for leaving and helps to bring some kind of closure to the process.

In addition to these clinical procedures, music therapists may have other responsibilities, depending upon the work setting, the client populations, and the therapist's job requirements. In hospital settings, music therapists may develop listening programs to meet various patient needs, produce shows or various kinds of musical events involving patients, arrange for patients to attend concerts in the community, or direct various kinds of recreational or therapeutic activities. In schools, music therapists may consult with classroom teachers or develop group music programs for special students. In the community, music therapists may consult with psychologists or psychiatrists, or provide musical instruction to special children. Music therapists working in institutions also have other duties such as ordering necessary equipment and supplies, and maintaining them. As will be discussed later, music therapists may also have positions which require administration, supervision, consultation, or teaching.


Individuals who go into music therapy are typically musicians who have a sincere desire to use their love and talents for music to help others. Often there is an equal interest in music and psychology or medicine.

  • Musicianship is an essential quality. Being a music therapist requires an in-depth understanding of the power of music, and the ability to reach others through singing and playing instruments. Music therapy students can major in any performance medium, however most training programs place additional emphasis on piano, guitar and voice, as these media are used most frequently in the clinical setting. Music therapists also have to have a breadth of musical knowledge and ability. They are frequently called upon to know about or perform classical music as well as country, rock, jazz and popular styles.
  • The successful music therapist is in good physical and mental health and has the motivation, stamina, and maturity necessary for working with exceptional individuals in a therapeutic way. It goes without saying that a therapist has to be a sensitive and caring person who can accept differences in others. Just as important, a therapist should also have the self-awareness and emotional stability needed to enter a helping relationship with individuals who have problems. The best therapists are those who have healed themselves! This is why therapy is often recommended as an essential experience for therapists, both during training and at various times during their clinical career. Music therapists should receive music therapy themselves!


To become a music therapist, one has to complete an undergraduate degree in music therapy (or it equivalence) at an accredited college or university, do an approved internship of approximately 1040 supervised clinical hours, and then obtain certification by passing a national examination given by the Certification Board for Music Therapist (CBMT).

  • Approximately 70 colleges and universities in the USA offer bachelor's degrees and equivalency programs in music therapy. The bachelor's degree usually requires about 130 semester hours or credits plus the internship. This usually takes 4 1/2 years to complete. The curriculum is divided into three main subjects: 1) Music (Theory, History, Performance, Composition, Conducting, Ensembles, and Functional Piano, Guitar and Voice); 2) Music Therapy (Foundations, Methods and Materials, Practicum, Research, etc.); and 3) General Studies (English, Math, Languages, Psychology, Physical Sciences, Humanities, Arts, etc.). In the internship, the student works in a clinical agency under the direct supervision of music therapists, and learns to assume the full range of responsibilities of a professional.
  • Equivalency programs are for students who already have a bachelor's degree in an area other than music therapy. These programs usually require the student to take all core music therapy courses at the undergraduate level and to make up any deficiencies the student may have in supportive areas such as anatomy, psychology, music, etc. Essentially, equivalency students have to complete all courses required in the undergraduate music therapy degree program which they have not already taken. Those who already have a degree in music performance or music education can usually complete an equivalency program and the internship in about two years; students who do not have a music degree may take significantly longer. Many students work on a master's degree while completing equivalency requirements.
  • Several colleges and universities offer a master's degree in music therapy. It usually requires 30 semester hours or credits beyond the undergraduate or equivalency program. The curriculum consists of advanced courses in music therapy, music, and supportive areas. A thesis or final project and a comprehensive examination are also required. Typically, a master's degree takes two years to complete.
  • A few universities offer doctoral degrees in music therapy. Typically, these are housed in the music or music education department.


Many factors enter into deciding where to study music therapy. Certainly, the school's reputation, facilities, geographical location, and faculty are important to consider, along with financial matters and many other personal circumstances and preferences. In addition, there are some important professional matters that warrant consideration.

  • First, students should make sure that the college or university is approved by the American Music Therapy Association, otherwise they may not be eligible to apply for certification in the field.
  • Second, students should select the college or university which will best meet their particular interests and needs. It is essential to talk to the faculty, to students currently enrolled, and when possible, to graduates of the program. Inquire about the requirements and the quality of training. Also find out about how the internship experience is scheduled, structured and supervised, as there are many different ways of designing this culminating part of the training.



Three things will help the most: 1) Practice for the audition on your major instrument. 2) Study the books on how to take the SAT or GRE examinations so that you get your best score. 3) Start taking piano or guitar lessons if you do not know how to play either.


Certification in music therapy is granted by the Certification Board for Music Therapists: upon completion of a degree or equivalency program in music therapy at a college or university approved by the American Music Therapy Association, and upon satisfactory completion of a nationally standardized examination on music therapy. Once certified, every music therapist is also required to maintain and update their knowledge and skills through continuing education.



Music therapists have many career options. They may be employed as a practitioner or clinician, a consultant, an administrator, a supervisor, or a college professor. Each option involves different places of employment and different qualification requirements.

  • Clinicians spend the majority of their time doing therapy with clients. They may work in private or governmental agencies, including hospitals, institutions, schools, clinics, residential treatment centers, group homes, day-care centers, nursing homes, halfway houses, partial hospitalization programs, community centers, institutes, etc. Many states have established job titles for music therapists and career ladders for advancement, while other states use a variety of other positions and titles to employ music therapists. Local school districts may also hire music therapists, some under the title of therapist and others under the title of teacher.
  • Not all clinicians are employed full-time by one agency. Many music therapists have begun to establish private practices of their own, or develop positions as clinical consultants with several agencies. Music therapists who develop their own practices usually have clients who know about music therapy or who are referred by other health professionals. Music therapists who serve as consultants work in an agency part-time, either providing diagnostic or treatment services to certain clients or developing programs which can be implemented by other staff members at the agency.
  • To be a clinician or consultant in an agency or private practice, the individual must be certified at the bachelor's level. When the job market is poor, there is a tendency for employers to also ask for the master's degree as a minimum qualification. A state license is not currently required to practice music therapy, however many states require certified music therapists to take an examination before becoming eligible for employment in any state-operated institution. School districts may also require an applicant to be certified as a teacher as well as a music therapist.
  • An administrator or supervisor directs clinical staff in a public or private agency. When the agency has a large music therapy program, the individual may be in charge of only music therapy; however, in many instances the music therapy program is part of a larger department which also includes other arts therapists, activity therapists, or recreation therapists. Administrators and supervisors have various responsibilities, including ordering and maintaining equipment, developing and managing budgets, hiring and dismissing staff, supervising and evaluating staff, etc. In most larger governmental agencies, at least two years work experience and a master's degree are required to become an administrator or supervisor. In smaller private institutions however, there may be no additional requirements.
  • Another career option is to become a college professor who trains others to become music therapists. In addition to teaching classes, professors supervise students in the clinic, evaluate students for admission and retention, attend meetings, and perform a variety of academic and administrative responsibilities. College professors are also expected to do research and to write articles and books. Some professors also continue to work part-time doing clinical work. To be a college professor, an individual should have at least a master's degree and three years of clinical experience. To be promoted in a college or university, music therapists are usually required to earn a doctorate.


Many institutions and agencies maintain permanent full-time positions for music therapists. These positions are usually advertised when they become vacant. In addition, because music therapy is a relatively new profession, and because music therapists work with diverse populations, there are always opportunities to create new job openings. Often, music therapists create their own positions by introducing themselves to administrators, demonstrating to the clinical staff what music therapy can do, and then consulting with the agency until a program can be initiated. Although this takes time and energy, such promotional efforts are a necessary and important aspect of being a music therapist. Because music therapy has many young professionals working their way up the career ladder, and because the career ladder often involves extending one's expertise into related fields, jobs in music therapy tend to turn over frequently.

As in other health and education professions, employment opportunities in music therapy are influenced by the economy and the amount of governmental funding given to health care and education programs. Though employment opportunities vary from place to place, and from time to time, music therapists who are committed and effective clinicians tend to be successful in the job market.


Music therapy salaries depend upon the individual's educational and work experience, the employer institution, and the specific job position. Average yearly salaries for clinicians range from $29,000 to $38,000 depending upon the setting. Salary scales in governmental agencies and schools tend to be higher than those in the private sector. Administrators and supervisors can expect to earn more than clinicians, depending upon background and experience and the size of the program or staff under their direction. College professors can also expect to earn a higher salary, especially those who have doctorates.



There are two organizations in the USA representing the profession and professionals of music therapy:

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA)
8455 Colesville Rd, .Suite 930
Silver Spring MD 20910
Tel: 301-589-3300

Fax: 301-589-5175

The Certification Board for Music Therapist (CBMT)
506 East Lancaster Avenue, Suite 102
Downingtown, PA  19335
Tel: 800-765-CBMT (2268) or 610-269-8900

Fax: 610-269-9232

AMTA membership numbers approximately 4,000 professionals and students. Working in tandem, these associations serve the profession and healthy community at-large by (1) establishing standards for professional competence, ethical conduct, clinical services, and education and training: (2) implementing these standards through individual certification and institutional approval functions; (3) promoting and disseminating research through publications; (4) familiarizing the health, education, and legislative communities with the applications of music therapy; and (5) developing employment opportunities.


Yes, one can find music therapists and music therapy organizations in many other countries. In fact, there is a world federation of music therapy associations and world congresses are held every three years. To find out more, write to the AMTA for an international directory.



First, go to the library and read! There are hundreds of books and articles on music therapy and its myriad applications, and most public and university libraries have a basic collection on the topic. There are also three professional journals in the USA. Their titles are: the Journal of Music Therapy, Music Therapy Perspectives, and Music Therapy: Journal of the American Association for Music Therapy,. Once you have an overview of the field, contact the AMTA, and find out if there are any agencies near you that employ music therapists, and ask for a list of colleges and universities that offer music therapy programs. If possible, try to observe a music therapist at work, or visit a music therapy class at a nearby college, or attend one of the association conferences. These experiences will deepen your understanding of the field significantly.


This depends upon what your particular interests are. For overviews of different aspects of the field, any of the one listed on the next page would be helpful, but keep in mind that there are many, many more! To obtain books and materials on music therapy, contact:

MMB Music
3526 Washington Ave.
St. Louis MO 63103-1019
Tel: 800-543-3771

Barcelona Publishers
4 White Brook Road - Lower Village
Gilsum NH 03448
Tel 800-345-6665

American Music Therapy Association (See above)


Aigen, K. (1998). Paths of Development in Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Aldridge, D. (1996). Music Therapy Research and Practice in Medicine. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Bonny, H. & Savary, L. (1973). Music and Your Mind. New York: Harper-Row.

Borczon, R. (1997). Music Therapy: Group Vignettes. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Boxill, E. (1985). Music Therapy for the Developmentally Disabled. Rockville MD: Aspen Systems.

Boxill, E. (1997). The Miracle of Music Therapy. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Bruscia, K. (1987). Improvisational Models of Music Therapy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Bruscia, K. (1991). Case Studies in Music Therapy. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Bruscia, K. (1998). Defining Music Therapy (Second Edition). Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Bruscia, K. (1998). The Dynamics of Music Psychotherapy. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Bunt, L. (1994). Music Therapy: An Art Beyond Words. New York: Routledge.

Davis, W., Gfeller, K., & Thaut, M. An Introduction to Music Therapy: Theory and Practice. Dubuque IA: William C. Brown.

Froehlich, M. (Ed.). (1996). Music Therapy with Hospitalized Children. Cherry Hill NJ: Jeffrey Books.

Furman, C. (Ed.). (1996). Effectiveness of Music Therapy Procedures: Documentation of Research and Clinical Practice. Silver Spring MD: AMTA.

Gaston, E. (1968). Music in Therapy. New York: MacMillan.

Hanser, S. (1987). Music Therapist's Handbook. St. Louis: Warren H. Green.

Heal, M., & Wigram, T. (1993). Music Therapy in Health and Education. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Hibben, J. (1999). Inside Music Therapy: Client Experiences. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Katsh, S., & Merle-Fishman, C. (1998). The Music Within You. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Lee, C. (1996). Music at the Edge. New York: Routledge.

Levin, H., & Levin, G. (1998). Learning Through Music. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Maranto, C. Dileo (1991). Applications of Music in Medicine. Silver Spring, MD: AMTA.

Maranto, C. Dileo (1993). Music Therapy: International Perspectives. Pipersville, PA: Jeffrey Books.

Munro, S. (1984). Music Therapy in Palliative/Hospice Care. St. Louis: MMB Music.

Nordoff, P. & Robbins, C. (1977). Creative Music Therapy. New York: John Day.

Plach, T. (1980). The Creative Use of Music in Group Therapy. Springfield IL: Charles C Thomas.

Prickett, C., & Standley, J. (Eds.) (1995). Research in Music Therapy: A Tradition of Excellence. Silver Spring MD: AMTA.

Priestley, M. (1994). Essays on Analytical Music Therapy. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Robbins, C., & Robbins, C. (1980). Music for the Hearing Impaired and Other Special Groups. St. Louis MO: MMB Music

Ruud, E. (1998). Music Therapy: Improvisation, Communication and Culture: Gilsum NH: Barcelona Pub.

Unkefer, R. (1990). Music Therapy in the Treatment of Adults with Mental Disorders. New York: Schirmer.

Wheeler, B. (Ed.). (1995). Music Therapy Research: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Wigram, T., Saperston, B., & West, R. (Eds.) (1995). The Art and Science of Music Therapy: A Handbook. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Wilson, B. (1996). Models of Music Therapy Interventions in School Settings. Silver Spring MD: AMTA.


Music Therapy Brief by Kenneth E. Bruscia
1993 Barcelona Publishers

All rights reserved: No part of this brochure may be reproduced or disseminated without written permission from the publisher. This brochure is published on the Temple University Music Therapy web site with permission from the publisher.

Department of Music Education and Therapy