Music Therapy: What Is It, and How Does It Make People Heal?

by Steven Lipman

The light and steady beat of hand drums can have a calming effect as it follows the beat of your heart. A beautiful melody can bring you to tears, and sometimes just the right word in a song can pull at your heart strings.

Is it any wonder that music has an impact on our psychology? It may be why you’re considering a career in music therapy – you want to utilize the power of music to impact our emotions as a way to heal people.

It’s a growing field, and in a world of increasing awareness about psychological issues and the emotional impact of music, there’s more need for music therapists than ever before. Issues like post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and learning difficulties are well-served by the practice, while scientists are quickly finding that the outcomes of physical ailments and diseases are improved with music therapy.

At Inside Music Schools, we believe knowledge is crucial to knowing what you want to do, and how to get there. Once you’ve finished this article, you’ll have answers to the following questions:

  1. What is Music Therapy?
  2. How Does Music Heal People?
  3. What is the History of Music Therapy?
  4. How Does Music Therapy Work?
  5. Do You Need to Play An Instrument to Practice Music Therapy?
  6. What Kind of Education Does a Music Therapist Need?
  7. What Is It Like to Study Music Therapy?
  8. What Is the Music Therapy Equivalency Test?
  9. What Are the Career Prospects for Music Therapists?
  10. What Are Some Trade Associations for Music Therapy?

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is an emergent field in psychology and medicine utilizing the power of music to help people suffering from many different types of psychological and physical issues.

The inspiration for music therapy is from an experience with music we all know well. Sometimes when I hear a song, I am stopped in my tracks – it could remind me of a time in my life, or something completely new manifesting a distinct emotional or psychological response. Music has importance in our lives because of its emotional and psychological impact on us.

The power of music is evident in how it makes us feel, how it makes us think, and how it makes us behave. Music therapy uses this recognized power to impact people’s thoughts and feelings in a way that will lead to a happier life.

Psychologist Heather Craig writes that music therapy has been found to increase quality of life, and has measurable effects on outcomes before, during, and after treatment. But, the power of music therapy doesn’t stop there.

How Does Music Therapy Heal People?

Music therapy as a source of healing has been documented by Harvard psychologists as an effective method of changing feelings and behavior for a healthier life and outlook.

There are five different classes of psychological modification which music therapy is known to help with:

What Matters – Like I stated above, music has the ability to grab our attention, and keep it there. Think of every time you’ve listened to a great solo and was hypnotized by its beauty.

What You Feel – Music can make us feel certain emotions, and music therapists use music to unleash and explore emotions at the appropriate time during a session.

What We Do – Music makes us move to the beat, tap our feet, and give up control of our bodies. Music therapy utilizes this for therapeutic purposes.

How We Think – As an intervention tool, music can change our thinking about adverse situations and mindsets. This is especially true when we find a song that speaks to a specific experience in our lives causing depression, PTSD, and any other number of psychological sickness.

How We Communicate – Much of what music says to us is without words. Many music therapists find non-verbal communication through musical improvisation helps us understand our emotions better, transforming how we tell people about them.

Even further, researchers at the Greater Polish Cancer Center have found music therapy aids in physical healing, as is the case with cancer patients. As the scientific world learns more about the relationship between music, the body, and the mind, further applications are expected to manifest within the field in the coming years.

The History of Music Therapy

Ever since the ancient Greeks, music has been a therapeutic tool. For instance, music from the flute was believed to help with sciatica pain – the songs used for this were called paeans.

We all know about Indigenous American and First Nation war dances, and how they were meant to inspire young warriors to fight. It goes to show that, even before the scientific age, people understood that music possessed a power over our minds that could not be ignored.

By the late 18th century, the scientific and medical fields began exploring the practice, though a name for music therapy wouldn’t be coined until the early 20th century.

The first true application of music as a therapeutic tool in the 20th century was for soldiers returning from World War I. Racked with physical and emotional ailments, community musicians would volunteer their time in war hospitals playing for wounded soldiers, to startling results.

Hospitals started to hire musicians to play for patients. Yet, as music therapy is equal parts psychological and musical practice, these community musicians needed specific education on how to deal with patients in a clinical environment.

College curriculums started sprouting up all over the country, and soon various associations began establishing standards of practice, developing licensing programs, and advocating for the use of music therapy in different clinical settings.

With the birth of associations and their advocacy, music therapy as a standard medical practice began taking hold in the mid-20th century. Today it is a burgeoning field of study as people look for non-invasive and human-centered therapies for some of humanity’s most pervasive maladies.

How Does Music Therapy Work?

The applications of music therapy are about as varied as there are types of music. Music therapists are always searching for clinical solutions catered to their patient’s particular needs, and each client needs their own, individually-catered musical solution.

A music therapist might bring instruments to a session, as in the case of Grace Hansen, a young girl who had to undergo a bone marrow transplant at the Nebraska Medical Center.

In this example, playing music is used to calm a child’s anxiety from being in the hospital. It’s well known that adverse mental states impact healing. Especially after major surgeries or long treatment regimens, music can put the mind in a better state to cope with medical trauma, and help people heal.

For some, the creation of music – guided and facilitated by a music therapist – helps patients feel they have an impact on the world at times when they feel powerless.

In other cases, music can help focus a troubled mind, as is the case with KJ – a young man with cerebral palsy and psychosis.

Music therapy sessions can include any number of musical activities, including but not limited to:

  1. Simple Playing – Therapists will sometimes bring instruments to a session for a patient to play, most times with the therapist.
  2. Performance – Therapists will play songs for patients before, during, or after treatments to calm the mind and make it easier to heal.
  3. Creation – The act of creating music helps patients and clients express their feelings, and gives them an opportunity to create an impact on their world.

Having such a large impact on people who are so in need is a great responsibility. That’s why over the past 60 years music therapy as a serious clinical practice has inspired a world of study to prepare practitioners for all number of opportunities to help people heal.

Do I Need to Play an Instrument to Practice Music Therapy?

Most all music therapists have at least one musical ability. As a base, music therapists should know how to sing and play at least one instrument.

Guitar and piano are the most popular instruments of choice among music therapists. But, the examples above show us new technologies finding their way to the hospital room. Creating electronic music is becoming increasingly popular as a tool for music therapy, indicating that your instrument of choice could be one or two, of many.

What Kind of Education Does A Music Therapist Need?

Studying to become a music therapist can take two different paths. One finds you in a bachelor’s program in college, while the other path is for people who may be considering a music therapy career after studying something else in college.

Studying Music Therapy in College

Music therapy is in many ways an overlapping of three different disciplines – music creation, psychology, and teaching. Students of music therapy bachelor’s degree programs will take a course load covering psychology, music, and both clinical and educational settings.

As music therapy is technically a medical field, you will also need to know about the body. Specific coursework and internships will have you working in clinical settings such as hospitals and treatment centers for 480 supervised work hours required for certification.

Depending on the program at your school of choice, students of music therapy will graduate with a Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy, a Bachelor of Arts in Music Therapy, or a Bachelor of Science in Music Therapy.

Here’s a shortlist of schools that offer great music therapy programs:

  1. The Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia – Students who complete this program graduate with a Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy.
  2. The John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair University – Students here can obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Music Therapy, or pursue a Master’s Degree in Music Therapy.
  3. Purdue University Fort Wayne – This university offers students a Bachelor of Science in Music Therapy.

But, people who want to become music therapists that didn’t study the subject in college have another option – a music therapy equivalency program.

What is a Music Therapy Equivalency Program?

Some universities offer a Music Therapy Equivalency Program. These courses of study give students just the credits needed to obtain a music therapy degree they are missing from their previous coursework.

If you already have a Bachelor of Arts in Music, or any other number of music degrees, an equivalency program is a great way to not necessarily take all the coursework required for a full Bachelor’s degree in music therapy. You will take mostly the requisite courses in psychology, education, and clinical practice to become a board-certified music therapist.

How Much Does it Cost for a Music Therapy Equivalency Program?

The cost of an equivalency program depends on the depth of the program.

In some cases, universities only offer certificate programs which most often can’t be paid for with financial aid. Certificate programs are not as in-depth as equivalency degree programs, which offer an additional music therapy degree.

What Licenses or Certifications Do You Need to Become a Music Therapist?

Upon completion of the MT-BC Examination, you will receive the MT-BC (Music Therapist – Board-Certified) credential. This is required for most music therapy jobs.

What Are the Career Prospects for Music Therapists?

The job prospects for music therapists is on the rise around the country. As awareness for the field increases, so does its applications in medicine.

According to Careers in Psychology, the field grew in 2018 and is only expected to grow further. Also, therapists who continue their education with a master’s degree often earn more than those with only a bachelor’s degree.6

Trade Associations for Music Therapists

Like any profession, trade associations offer assistance and guidance to music therapists on their career path. Trade associations are resources for people who are interested in music therapy, or are practicing and need to stay up to date on new developments.

As an educational and therapeutic field, music therapy requires consistent professional development. Just as your high school teacher must take “professional development days,” music therapists require consistent relicensing from the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT).

Certification Board For Music Therapists – This is a group of music therapists who are leaders in their field. In order to become a music therapist, you must pass the MT-BC Examination administered by them.

American Music Therapy Association – This association is the main advocacy and promotional body of music therapy in the United States. They set the standards of the discipline industry-wide, and coordinate with the CBMT in licensing, certification, and accreditation for universities offering music therapy degrees.

World Federation of Music Therapy – Founded in Italy in 1985, the World Federation of Music Therapy promotes the practice around the world, funds research, and builds higher standards for the discipline globally.

If you are interested in studying music therapy, you’ll need to find not just the right school, but the right school for you. At Inside Music Schools, we build an understanding of your career needs and goals and develop a personalized plan for getting you in the right educational environment for you.

Find out more about Inside Music School’s approach here .


    1. Music Therapy in Supportive Cancer Care. – Malgorzata Monika Stanczyk, Rep Pract Oncol Radiother, June 2011.

What is Music Therapy and How Does It Work? – Heather Craig, Positive Psychology, 2019.

  1. How Music Can Be Therapeutic – Elizabeth Scott, Very Well Mind, 2019.
  2. History of Music Therapy – The American Music Therapy Association.
  3. Board Certification for Music TherapistsCertification Board for Music Therapists.
  4. Music Therapist Employment OutlookCareers in Psychology.

Founder & President at Inside Music Schools |

Head of admissions and faculty member at Berklee College of Music for 40 years, Steve Lipman and our team at Inside Music Schools speak music as their primary language. We approach each client contact with open eyes, ears, and minds. As the country’s premier music school consultant, he has advised students from the United States, Canada, the U.K., India, Singapore, Dubai, China, Australia, Turkey, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Israel, Italy, Russia and elsewhere.