Music Therapist  What They Do

Just the Facts


Music Therapists Career Video



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dotMusic therapy is the prescribed use of music to promote health. Traditional therapies rely on language, and their effectiveness depends on the client's ability to talk with the therapist.

But the language of music is available to everyone regardless of age, disability or cultural background. "It's for any population," says Jimm Burrell, a music therapist in Gahanna, Ohio.

dotMusic therapy has been used effectively with children, adolescents, adults and the elderly with problems ranging from learning disabilities to Alzheimer's disease. People with substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, and acute and chronic pain have all benefited from music therapy.

dotMusic therapist Cheryl Farris-Manning says music kept her from needing painkillers during the birth of her three children.

Recent studies have shown that music can help develop communication and thinking skills in both the general population and in people with severe disabilities.

A music therapist might play music to patients and encourage them to play along with hand instruments.

Burrell says just learning to hold an instrument properly can be an accomplishment for some patients. He's had patients who couldn't speak but were able to sing in his sessions because music is centered in a different part of the brain than speech. "I've had that happen more than once," says Burrell.

dotOther musical therapies include singing, moving, composing and improvising. Burrell and many other music therapists use a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) system, which links a synthesizer and computer to allow patients to create their own music.

"They can touch a switch and make bells happen," explains Burrell.

Different patients respond to different types of music. It's up to the music therapist to record different reactions and design a music program best matched to the patient or group of patients.

The challenge in music therapy is knowing what works and how to use it. That's why music therapists need to have a strong background in music and psychology.

Therapists work with physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers and physical and occupational therapists in a variety of health-care and educational settings.

Hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities, adult day-care programs, community programs for people with disabilities, correctional facilities and substance abuse centers may all use the services of a music therapist. In nursing homes and residential facilities, music therapists may be called music directors or therapeutic music specialists.

dotBut wherever they work, they assess patients based on information from medical records, medical staff, family and the patients themselves. They then develop and carry out therapeutic activity programs consistent with patient needs and interests.

Some therapists are self-employed, generally contracting with nursing homes or community agencies to develop and oversee programs. Farris-Manning says there are no music therapists on staff in health-care facilities in her community; all music therapy is done on contract.

dotMusic therapists observe and record patients' participation, reactions and progress during each session. These records can be used by the medical staff and others to monitor progress, justify changes or end treatment.

dotMusic therapists generally work a 40-hour week, which may include some evenings, weekends and holidays.

dotBut what type of person is a music therapist? "They have a desire to help people, they like music and they're good at music," says music therapist Dick Cushenberry.

Music therapists should be comfortable working with disabled people and be patient, tactful and persuasive. Ingenuity and imagination are needed in adapting activities to individual needs.

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.


At a Glance

Use music to promote health

  • You need to be patient, tactful and persuasive
  • Music therapy differs depending on the patient's needs and abilities
  • Start by volunteering in nursing homes or kids' camps