Music Therapy is a field devoted to mental health and wellness which utilizes instruments, lyrics, recordings, and other musical tools (live or pre-recorded) as part of the therapeutic effort. Beyond mental health specifically, music therapists are also often involved in treatment regarding speech, cognition, and motor functioning. Some consider music therapy to be one of several branches of the “expressive” or “experiential” therapies, alongside other specialties such as Art Therapy. According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is “the 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.” There are multiple philosophies or theoretical approaches to music therapy, including the behavioral, neurologic, analytic, and improvisatory models. Music Therapy includes a broad array of goals and interests, but always tied together by the aim of using music to pursue mental well-being. Music Therapy as a field actually has strong roots here in Michigan, with the first ever program being established here (Michigan State University, but now discontinued) and two of the most well-recognized and rigorous training programs in the country located here as well (Western Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University).
Music therapists are just like any other mental health professional insofar as they are drawn to the idea of helping others specifically with regard to mental, emotional, and behavioral functioning, but with the added component that they are also passionate about music. Most music therapists have studied one or more instruments for years, and have experience performing, composing, or teaching music in addition to their interests in mental health. An effective music therapist juggles several related skillsets, including empathy and connection, ethics and professionalism, creativity with words and melody, knowledge about psychopathology and music theory, musicianship, and finally a confidence and inner sense of comfort with one’s own mental health journey. The daily job duties of a music therapist vary widely and do not lend themselves easily to an obvious prototype. Some will be working with a specific population (e.g., special education students, hospice patients, in-patient psychiatric care) whereas others will have very diverse clientele. The music genres, presenting concerns, and contexts of one’s work may even fluctuate rapidly on a case-to-case basis throughout a single workday! One must be flexible.
Music therapists work in a variety of settings, as their location and context depends upon how they have built their career! Some common sites of employment would include hospitals, schools, agencies, residential or outpatient treatment centers, and even private practice. Tied to their work setting is the pattern of presenting problems they treat; everything from anxiety, depression, and trauma, to neurodevelopmental disorders, pain management, end-of-life care, and more, can all fall within the purview of Music Therapy.
Degree: In order to become a Music Therapist, the minimum degree level is a Bachelor’s, and there are indeed some job opportunities at this level. If one earned a Bachelor’s degree in another topic and wishes to re-specialize in Music Therapy, there are some equivalency certificate programs which exist, such as this one at WMU. There also exist Master’s programs and Doctoral programs in Music Therapy, and with higher degree levels one is afforded more career mobility and flexibility.
License: There is currently no licensure law in Michigan recognizing Music Therapy as its own legally protected professional category. However, at the time of writing (2022), there are some legislative efforts occurring to sign bills into place to establish Music Therapy licensure at the state level.
Certification: As no license currently exists, the recognized level of training is the combination of at least a Bachelor’s degree, a completed internship (consisting of over ~1000 hours of supervised Music Therapy work), and a passing score on the board certification exam. With these qualifications, one can earn the status of “Board Certified Music Therapist” which is typically abbreviated “MT-BC” with one’s name.
Training: Undergraduate and Graduate training programs in this field include the programs at WMU and EMU as mentioned above. Many others are available in other states as well.
Music Therapy professionals are motivated by their intersecting passions for mental health and music. If you’ve ever found music to be emotionally moving, a way to express a complicated or heavy feeling, a way to get through a difficult experience, or a way to deeply connect with others, then you have experienced some of what inspires and drives music therapists to do what they do!
Relevant State-Level Organization
Michigan Music Therapists
Relevant National Organization
American Music Therapy Association
Certification Board for Music Therapists