Music Therapy Degrees: How to Become a Music Therapist

A familiar song from the past can evoke distant memories. Because of this, people struggling with Alzheimer’s or dementia sometimes visit music therapists, who can help them recall significant moments and rediscover their sense of identity.

Through music therapy, people can also practice cognitive and communication skills, counteract feelings of loneliness or powerlessness and improve their mood.

Music therapists are both skilled musicians and trained health care providers, and their job is to promote healing via musical experiences. They can use rhythm as a tool to instruct people with mobility impairments on how to walk at a safe and steady pace, and they can show people who have lost the ability to speak due to an illness or injury how to talk again through singing instruction.

The profession of music therapy requires a bachelor’s degree at minimum, but music therapists often have graduate degrees. If you’re contemplating a career in music therapy, here are some things you need to know.

[READ: Is a Music Degree Worth It and Does It Prepare You for a Music Career?]

What Is Music Therapy and Who Do Music Therapists Help?

Music therapy is an evidence-based clinical field that capitalizes on the positive ways music can influence the human mind.

“When your brain is exposed to music as a human, it activates the parts of your brain that are responsible for movement, language, attention, memory, emotion (and) executive function,” says Brian Harris, CEO of MEDRhythms, a Maine-based music therapy company that specializes in treating neurological disorders. “It actually engages your brain unlike any other stimulus on earth.”

Music therapists can address a wide array of health conditions, ranging from addiction problems to infant feeding difficulties to developmental disabilities, and they frequently comfort patients in pain. Music therapists can also sometimes gauge the level of awareness among patients who are comatose or semiconscious by observing the extent to which patients respond to certain songs, and they may also attempt to awaken such patients.

“Because music is a powerful stimulus, it can be used broadly across the board in health care, from mental health to end-of-life or hospice care,” Harris says.

[Read: What You Need to Know About Becoming a Music Major.]

How to Start a Career as a Music Therapist

Most people who pursue an education in music therapy already have multiple years of experience honing their musical performance abilities.

“Keep practicing,” says Joy Allen, chair of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “First and foremost, music therapists are musicians.”

Potential music therapists should gain familiarity with multiple genres and styles of music, and they should learn how to play a variety of instruments, Allen says. Because music therapists typically play guitar and piano and often sing, anyone who intends to enter the music therapy field should learn those skills, she suggests.

To provide music therapy independently in the U.S., without guidance from an experienced music therapist, a person must fulfill the following requirements:

— Complete specialized coursework in music therapy at the undergraduate level or higher from a music therapy program approved by the American Music Therapy Association. The association provides a directory of approved music therapy schools on its website.

— Earn a bachelor’s degree or better in music therapy or a directly related field, such as psychology.

— Receive 1,200 hours of clinical training, including a supervised internship.

— Pass a national board certification exam administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

— Fulfill any special requirements that apply within the state where delivering therapy. In some places, music therapists must officially register with state authorities, obtain a state-specific certification or qualify for a state license.

[Read: How to Become an Art Therapist.]

What You Learn in a Music Therapy Program

Bachelor’s degrees in music therapy typically include coursework in musical foundations, such as music arrangement, composition, history and theory, plus clinical foundations classes in psychology and therapy. There is also usually an extensive music therapy curriculum, in addition to general education courses.

Master’s or doctoral music therapy programs build on the lessons learned at the undergraduate level, and such programs are designed to increase a musical therapist’s clinical skills and leadership abilities.

According to Allen, one way to judge the quality of a music therapy program is to find out how many and what types of clinical opportunities it offers. A solid music therapy program will teach students about diverse music styles and genres, and “the values and beliefs about music, health, and wellbeing from various cultural perspectives,” she wrote in an email. It will also include instruction about the use of music therapy technologies such as electronic instruments and telehealth, she says.

Music Therapy Jobs and Salaries

The median salary among U.S. music therapists in 2021 was $59,500, and employment within the field is likely to be 10% to 15% higher in 2030 than it was in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET occupational directory.

The first degree programs in music therapy in the U.S. were established in the 1940s.

Amy Marroquin, a senior music therapist with TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston — the No. 2 rehabilitation hospital in the U.S. News national hospital rankings — recalls that decades ago, when she informed her parents that she wanted to be a music therapist, they told her they didn’t know about that occupation.

Marroquin says the music therapy profession has more visibility now than when she started her career, but music therapists still often have to explain what they do and justify its value. “Be prepared to have to, at some point in your career, stand up for your career and stand up for music therapy,” she says.

Music therapy can be particularly helpful for clients who aren’t chatty or who are unreceptive to talk therapy, since clients can choose to play an instrument instead of using words, experts say.

“It’s a medium that is nonverbal, so someone can engage in music without having to speak necessarily, and that can help people to express feelings,” says Jane Creagan, director of professional programs at the American Music Therapy Association. “Also, music is generally enjoyable and nonthreatening. People tend to engage in music making more readily than they would in something else.”

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