4 Differences Between Music Therapists and Musician Volunteers

Have you ever wondered what makes a music therapist different from a musician who volunteers to play music at a hospital, home for the elderly, or a similar place? For some looking from the outside, the difference might not be obvious, but there are actually significant differences! In this blog post, we tell you 4 differences between music therapists and musician volunteers.


First, a reminder about what we mean by music therapists and an explanation of what we mean by musician volunteers:


Music therapist:

A credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program and uses clinical and evidence-based music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship.


Musician volunteer:

We are using this term in a broad sense to refer to any non-certified non-music therapist person offering music on a volunteer basis. They may do so in hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphanages, or any other place where the goal goes beyond only performance and steps into the area of non-musical and therapeutic goals.


Here are the four differences!


1. Training and Skills

As you know if you have been following our blog, being a music therapist requires specialized training. A music therapist must have at least a Bachelor’s degree in music therapy. They must also complete a clinical internship and they need to pass the board certification. The training that music therapists undergo is in the fields of psychology, neurology, biology, and more. This training helps music therapists understand how the brain processes music. It is also important for them to know how different musical interventions have different outcomes for different populations. In other words, the training that music therapists get is directly geared towards the use of music in therapeutic settings.


On the other hand, musicians might have extensive training in their craft of playing music. They might even have training in psychology and they might know a lot about the effects of music in the brain. Nevertheless, they do not have the sort of comprehensive training that music therapists have in using music in therapeutic interventions.


It is true that the lines get blurred in different cultures and countries as some lack the certification process present in the United States. And, at least in theory, musician volunteers could have almost the same or even better training and skill level as music therapists. Nevertheless, that is most often not the case. Musicians usually play what they are good at and they might attune to the present needs, but they do not do it to the extent music therapists do. To make an analogy, not only because somebody knows something about psychology and has skills in helping people does that make him or her a psychologist.


2. Repertoire

Music therapists often engage with a broad range of patients and clients. That means working with populations from the tiniest babies all the way to the most elderly. That also means working with a broad range of musical tastes. The little ones might not care much about what they listen to, but there will definitely be a difference between what a teenager asks for and what might work in a home for the elderly. Music therapists often use sheet music, chord sheets, and other tools, but they also often just have a lot of music memorized!


Music therapists must be experts at knowing songs from different styles. They should also be able to use them at the appropriate times. Not all sad songs are appropriate at dismal times and not all happy songs will make people happy. Music therapists are not only able to play a wide repertoire, but they are also able to find the appropriate repertoire.


Musician volunteers often also know a good repertoire. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that a musician volunteer might have a limited repertoire. Perhaps they can play Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy gorgeously on the piano, but they are not able to play Twenty One Pilots or even Old McDonald. And it is not because they are not good musicians. It is simply that in their training they have focused on what they enjoy or what they play best. They might not be as interested as music therapists in knowing songs for people of all ages. Disclaimer: It is quite possible that musician volunteers know the same or even more repertoire than music therapists. Then the difference would lay more on how that repertoire is used to address different goals.


3. Goals

It is often said that music therapy is meant to address non-musical goals. There are some who say that only by addressing people’s music can we address the other issues, but let us not go there in this blog post. It is true that the ultimate goal of a music therapist is to address something non-musical. Music therapists do not seek to help people become great guitarists or great ukulele players or anything of the like. Music therapists ultimately want to address psychological, emotional, physical, social, or spiritual needs and use music to reach those goals. Thus, playing the ukulele is not only about playing the ukulele, but it is perhaps also about helping somebody gain confidence and self-esteem. And perhaps singing songs to a patient is to help them cope better with physical pain. And so on.


Musician volunteers have their own careers playing music for other goals, most probably performance and/or teaching. When they come into places where they volunteer their music they step a little bit into the world of music therapy. In doing so, they perhaps start to look at other goals that reflect the therapeutic needs of those they are playing for. Nevertheless, this transition could perhaps not be as smooth or effective. After all, they might still fall back into their normal state of playing music and forget to pay attention to the environment, the patients, and the goals that are trying to be addressed. In a hospital lobby, for example, they will not be working with patients directly. They will most likely be playing environmental music that might or might not have the desired outcomes.


4. Connection to patient

Music therapists, because of their training and credentials, often have a closer relationship with patients. They are able to start a therapeutic relationship in which they work directly with a patient to address different goals. In some cases, that might involve exploring the psyche of patients and creating a truly deep therapist-patient relationship. This is perhaps most true of music therapists working in mental health. In those cases, it is the goal to work through what a patient might have going on in his or her mind. That happens through musical interplay but also it is really important that a relationship develops where the therapist can access information from the patient.


In the case of musician volunteers, there remains a distance between the musician and whoever is receiving the music. In some cases, musicians might be allowed to interact closer with patients, but that is often not the case. And even if they do, they should probably never deal with the psychological issues of patients. That should be left to a mental health professional such as a music therapist or another therapist. There always remains a wider distance between musicians and those whom they are helping.


In short, music therapists and musician volunteers might often seem like they are doing the same job. This is really not the case. There are important differences in training, repertoire, goals, and connection to the patient between music therapists and musician volunteers. This is important in recognizing what one might be receiving. It is also a matter of appreciating what music therapists do and what they are bringing to the table.


Again, thanks for reading, and help us by sharing if you think somebody might find this useful!

L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

Samuel is Sam's Fans Operating Director and our primary blogger!

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