What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is a relatively new field, but one worth knowing about. Music is central to our societies today as much as it was millennia ago. The survival of Palaeolithic cave-paintings and flutes made of bone suggests that people danced to some form of music. Cultures in the ancient world used music both in their daily lives and in healing rituals and methods.

“The use of music to influence the human body was first mentioned in writing in Egyptian medical papyri dating back to 1500 BCE” – Roland Benenzon

Greco-Roman, Arabian, Indian and Chinese traditions of learned medicine all include various notions of musical therapy. Stories such as the story of David playing his harp to the troubled Saul also provide evidence of this.

Nowadays we have evidence for the practice and benefits of this type of therapy. It is an ever-growing field with presence all around the world. The situation looks better than ever before! So, what is it? The American Association of Music Therapists (AMTA) describes it as:

“the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”

AMTA’s Definition of Music Therapy

Firstly, AMTA’s definition defines music therapy as “clinical.” Clinical makes us think right away of medicine, doctors, and hospitals. Music therapy is effective and based on evidence that comes from research and empirical observation. In other words, there is sound evidence that music helps people heal in many ways.

A music therapist employs different “music interventions” to address specific goals. Music therapists have a myriad of experiences at their disposal. Possible interventions are:

  • Writing songs
  • Directed music listening
  • Music and relaxation exercises
  • Lyric discussion
  • Singing/toning
  • Moving to music
  • Creating recordings and videos
  • Adapted instrument lessons
  • And more!

Music therapists know which kind of activities will help a patient achieve his or her goals.

Individualized Goals

Music therapists use music to accomplish individualized goals. They use music with a really specific goal in mind. A music therapist has training to come up with the best plan and music intervention to accomplish that goal. And it is all within a therapeutic relationship, a relationship in which the patient/participant can feel safe, welcome, and understood.

Here in the United States a music therapy is one who is a “credentialed professional,” that is, somebody who has gone through an approved program and has successfully passed the appropriate examinations. This is necessary to ensure that music therapy as a profession remains a reputable and effective practice. It also helps ensure that the general population might recognize its importance.

Other Definitions of Music Therapy

Now, for another definition I like what music therapist Leslie Bunt says about music therapy. He says that “music therapy is the use of sounds and music within an evolving relationship between patient/participant and therapist to support and encourage physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual well-being.” In this short definition, Bunt first recognizes that it is always an evolving relationship that is involved in the therapeutic process. The word therapy comes from the Greek “therapeia, ” which means the human qualities of caring, attending and serving. Music is powerful by itself, but it is important to recognize that an evolving relationship will open channels of communication and will create trust, an essential element in the musical-therapeutic process. The trust created by a music therapist will allow the participant not only to listen with more intent, but also to listen better.

Sam’s Fans focuses on Music Therapy used in Hospital settings, but Music Therapy includes a lot more.

This definition also recognizes that it is not always patients in the strictest sense of the word that benefit from music therapy. “Participants” is a more encompassing word for it recognizes that the musical-therapeutic process can happen in a diverse range of scenarios. Bunt also recognizes that a music therapist encourages the well-being of a person in a holistic way that includes physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual levels.


Music Therapy Profession

This profession encompasses a lot more than most people realize! Sam’s Fans focuses on programs that serve seriously ill patients and their families, but music’s power is used in many settings.

Unfortunately, music therapists still face a lot of challenges. A music therapy salary, for example, does not reflect the benefits of this profession. The median mid-career salary for music therapists is around $55,700. Here is some more information from CareerExplorer:

CareerExplorer mentions that the average salary for music therapists is actually $47,860. The discrepancy is probably because $55K is for mid-career salary and $47K as an average for all music therapists. Wages can start as low as $29,590 and go up to $77,050. Only the top-level (90th percentile) music therapists are earning around $77K while a starting music therapist would be earning around $30K. I don’t know about you, but that seems low to me! You can explore further about a music therapy salary in this blog post.

Degree in music therapy

We hope that you consider getting a degree in music therapy! There are different ways to become a music therapist. The AMTA summarizes these options here. The options for you might be:

  • To get a Bachelor’s degree in MT.
  • Completing and Undergraduate equivalency in MT.
  • To get a Master’s or PhD after earning a Bachelor’s or equivalency in MT.

If you are interested in supporting the arts therapies in your local community, consider making a donation!

Nikki McCarthy

Nikki McCarthy


  1. […] of all, in order to become a music therapist, one needs to have the desire to help and the skill to become a highly skilled musician and a […]

  2. […] Music therapist: […]

  3. […] fact that Nikki loves Mat Kearney, there are many reasons why the song “On and On” is great for music therapy. You can hear a little bit of Sam singing it in the TODAY show video […]

  4. […] more humanistic way of dealing with patients in healthcare. But what can Patch Adams tell us about music therapy in healthcare? In the movie, Patch is able to make a musical connection with a hard-to-deal-with […]

  5. […] Music therapy is awesome by itself. But did you know that it can also be given along other therapies? Music therapists work along recreational therapists, art therapists, massage therapists, dance movement therapists, and more! When combined with other therapies it can give an added benefit to the patient. Recently, Jessica Bogacik from Nationwide Children’s Hospital told us about music and massage therapy co-treatments and sent us some stories. […]

  6. Music Therapy for Children with Autism - Sam's Fans on October 22, 2019 at 12:52 am

    […] are years of evidence to support the efficacy of music therapy with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the body of research only continues to grow. […]

  7. […] a reminder, music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals […]

  8. […] a music therapist, Annette’s role is as a non-pharmacological way of dealing with pain and cope with burns and […]

  9. […] of music therapy go back thousands of years. We know about music in the pre-historic world thanks to the survival of […]

Leave a Comment


Register to receive our weekly email with highlights from our music and art therapy blog: