Music Therapist Careers

According to Greek mythology, Orpheus used the power of music to save his lost love from the darkness of the underworld. Today’s music therapists use music’s healing power to reach patients who need specialized care. Music therapists develop music-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. They teach clients how to use music to improve their well-being; it can help people adjust to life changes, feel less anxious or depressed, and generally experience clearer thinking and more positive emotions. Experienced musicians enter this field with the ability to sing and play instruments such as keyboard, guitar, or percussion. They assess clients’ needs… and their interest in different aspects of music… to design a specific musical experience— that might include playing instruments, singing, and moving or dancing to music… or a therapist might play music to patients and invite them to draw, meditate, or just listen. Typical employers of music therapists include general hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, and schools. Some music therapists work in their own private practice. Most music therapists have a bachelor’s degree in their field. Many employers prefer national certification. These professionals combine the knowledge of a therapist with strong music skills to elicit a level of healing that —for some patients— words alone could never reach.

Music therapists use music to help people heal and grow. 

Music is powerful; its active rhythmic and melodic components can have intense emotional effects on people, and there are numerous health benefits associated with musical exposure and creation. Music therapists are certified professionals who work with individuals to address their various needs using music. Patients can react to music therapy in a number of positive ways. Learning an instrument can help someone regain fine motor skills after an injury; hearing a familiar song can help to ground patients with memory problems; withdrawn children can learn to communicate through musical activity. Music therapists work with all kinds of populations, from patients experiencing mental health crises to premature infants, though many take the opportunity to specialize in a particular care setting or patient group. This type of individualized client-centered care can be very beneficial to both the patient and practitioner.

Work as a music therapist may include...

  • Playing a variety of instruments for patients
  • Leading patients in musical exploration
  • Developing treatment plans for clients
  • Assessing the care needs of individuals or populations
  • Conducting research on the effects of music therapy

Many institutions employ musical therapists, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, prisons, and hospices. Some music therapists have their own practices, where they may see patients individually; others collaborate with community centers and nonprofits to bring music therapy to underserved populations. Some work with research hospitals or university labs to discover and test new developments in the field.

Becoming a music therapist requires extensive training. The standard path involves getting a Bachelor's degree in music therapy, during which students complete an intensive clinical training regimen and prepare to work with clients. This often involves completing an internship to gain hours of experience as required by the program and American Music Therapy Association.  Master's degree programs in music therapy can be a great option for students who studied something else at the undergraduate level or who want to develop their skills further. Graduating from any accredited music therapy program qualifies therapists in training to take a board certification exam; passing this exam will grant them the ability to practice clinical music therapy. In addition to paper qualifications, there are some things every music therapist should have - most importantly, a grasp of music theory and its underlying concepts, such as arranging, sight reading, improvisation, and harmony. Music therapists must also be able to skillfully play several instruments, which requires years of practice and a great deal of patience. Most focus on guitar, piano, and percussion, but musicians trained on other instruments may choose to incorporate them into their practice. The most important element in music therapy is communication; working with different kinds of patients requires a level of emotional awareness, as well as the ability to assess needs and evaluate progress.

If you want to use your musical ability to help people heal, consider a career in musical therapy.

The American Music Therapy Association promotes the therapeutic use of music in rehabilitation, special education, and community settings.

The World Federation of Music Therapy is an international nonprofit bringing together music therapy associations and individuals and promoting music therapy globally.

The Certification Board for Music Therapists promotes excellence by awarding board certification in music therapy based on competence in clinical practice.

The National Organization for Arts in Health works to unite, advance, and serve the field of arts in health.