Getting Started with a Music Therapist Career

Created by careersinpsychology

Man listening to musicWhat Is Music Therapy?

Music has an effect like no other form of art. Unlike paintings or sculptures, music often affects nearly every person that listens to it, in some way.

From a very young age, humans usually associate music with something pleasant and soothing. For example, consider a young mother singing to her fussy newborn. More often than not, the harmonious sound of his mother’s voice is enough to calm the newborn. Children are also usually surrounded by music as they grow up, in the form of television shows, games, and school classes. Teenagers are notorious music lovers, and some may go on to surround themselves by music when they become adults.

Music therapy is a type of expressive therapy that uses music exposure to help people improve their well being. This type of therapy can be used to help individuals that suffer from mental or physical ailments or disorders. All sorts of musical experienced can be integrated into music therapy, from listening to music to playing music to writing music.

As a form of therapy, music has been used since ancient times. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, used music to help his mental health patients feel better, for instance. Over the years, many medical institutions and hospitals have regularly exposed patients to music.

However, the first music therapy degree programs were founded in the United States during the middle of the 1940’s. Since that time, the field of music therapy has been steadily growing, making music therapy careers excellent choices for individuals interested in mental health with a passion for music.

How Does Music Therapy Work?

"Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."
~ William Congreve

In general, music affects most peoples feelings and emotions. Listening to certain songs, for example, can often bring back good memories of our childhoods, loved ones, or other memories that are just as pleasant.

Listening to music has a number of subtle physical effects on our bodies. For instance, listening to the right music can temporarily lower blood pressure and heart rate. Music also effects our brains’ neurological processes as well. Scientists have discovered that listening to music can cause the brain to release less cortisol, a hormone that has been dubbed the “stress hormone”. On the other hand, listening to music can also cause your brain to release more endorphins, which are attributed to feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

Some scientists also theorize that music effects our brainwave activity as well. This theory suggests that upbeat music with a fast rhythm can stimulate faster brainwaves, while music with a slower rhythm can help calm those same brainwaves.

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What Does a Music Therapist Do?

A music therapist might work with clients suffering from a number of different problems, whether these problems are mental, emotional, or physical. For instance, they may work with individuals that suffer from illness or disorders such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Grief
  • Abuse
  • PTSD
  • Schizophrenia
  • Cognitive Issues
  • Social Angst
  • Autism
  • Strokes
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Dementia
  • Chronic Pain
  • Heart Disease
  • Cancer
  • Seizure Disorders
Of course this is just a short list of ailments that can benefit from music therapy. A music therapist can also help people dealing with such things as everyday stress and personal growth as well.

A music therapist career might involve treating individual clients or groups of clients. Some music therapists might even work specifically with family units.

Like most other therapists, a music therapist will usually assess his clients first. During this initial assessment meeting, the therapist might try to gauge how much certain types of music impact the clients emotionally or physically. The therapist will also usually determine the best type of music therapy for each client. Some clients may be more comfortable with music therapy that involves simply listening to therapy, while other clients may be comfortable with and benefit more from music therapy that involves creating music. Keep in mind that a client does not have to be musically talented in order to participate in music therapy; he simply needs to enjoy music and be receptive to its healing qualities.

A music therapist will then meet with his clients regularly, usually once a week. During these sessions, the therapist might engage his clients in a number of musical activities, which will often vary depending on the clients interests, abilities, and goals. The therapist might encourage his clients to simply listen to and discuss music, for instance, or he may encourage them to participate more actively. Clients might also sing, play instruments, dance, or even write music as well.

Clients are also often encouraged by their music therapists to integrate music into the everyday lives - outside of sessions - as well. They might be encouraged to listen to soothing music after a particularly stressful day, for example, or they may be encouraged to practice an instrument regularly.

Where Does a Music Therapist Work?

Music therapists might work as volunteers or as salaried employees in certain institutions. They can often be found in medical hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, mental health facilities, rehabilitation facilities, senior centers, and retirement homes. Because children are particularly receptive to music therapy, these professionals can also sometimes be found in schools as well.

If you choose to pursue a music therapy career, you also have the option of opening your own private music therapy practice. In doing so, you can meet with clients in either and office setting or a music studio setting.

What Are the Education Requirements for a Career in Music Therapy?

Starting a music therapy career generally requires a bachelor’s degree in music therapy. These degree programs require completion of courses in the areas of both music and therapy, as well as courses in music therapy. Master’s degree programs in music therapy are also available.

Although it may not be necessary in some areas, music therapists should consider becoming certified recreational therapists. In order to become certified, individuals must complete 480 hours of supervised work experience. They can then take the certification examination given by the the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification.

What Is the Annual Average Salary for a Music Therapist?

Music therapists fall under a broader category of recreational therapists, at least when it comes to data being collected by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of May 2022, recreational therapists made an annual average salary of $51,330 with the top 10 percent of the profession earning around $84,410. Physicians’ offices and the federal government are two of the highest-paying employers in the profession.

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for recreational therapists are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.

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