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Music Therapists Do It Differently

Is it music therapy?

Say you walk by a room in a hospital, and you see a person lying in bed, and a woman sitting next to her, singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” while strumming a guitar. Maybe you think, “oh, how lovely. Music is so relaxing!”

Or maybe you pass the activity room in a memory care community, and you see a guy leading the group in singing “Love Me Tender” while playing his guitar. Then, he passes out a bunch of drums and maracas and has the participants play along while he sings The Beatles’ tune “She Loves You.” You probably think it looks like fun, and maybe you wish you could join in, too! Maybe you even think, “wow, I’ve never seen Mabel (or Henry or Thelma) smile like that!”

You know good things are happening in those rooms, but is that a volunteer? Or an entertainer? Or a music therapist?

"I wonder if that's a music therapy session?"

“I wonder if that’s a music therapy session?”

The truth is, if you’re just walking by a music therapy session or observing from the outside, it can be difficult to tell the difference between “music therapy” and simply having someone play music for an individual or group. Any kind of music activity can certainly be therapeutic in the sense that it can make people feel good, and there are definitely times when hiring a real entertainer is a much better choice than hiring a music therapist.

Music therapists do things differently, though, and that can have a huge impact on how much and in what ways we can help clients. This difference lies in how, as a music therapist, I am thinking about and structuring the music, based on what I know about the client and what is happening within the session.

When music therapists do music, we start by considering the clients’ goals and what they need to move towards better health. We plan and facilitate music experiences from there. Even then, we’re always evaluating and adapting what we do as we engage in music with our clients. This is true even when it seems we’re just singing a song to someone.

I came up with a list of ten different ways that I do live music differently as a music therapist, but then I realized that one blog post was too long to be readable. So, over the next several posts in this series, I will discuss some of the many ways music therapists do live music differently, with plenty of stories and illustrations to go along with them. I’ll post links to each new post below when it goes live.

#1. Session Planning

#2. In-The-Moment Adaptations

#3. Key and Range

#4. Tempo

#5. Texture

#6. Rhythm

#7. Sound and Silence

#8. Verbal Interaction

#9. Adding Instruments

#10. Supporting Movement

As you dig through each of these posts, keep in mind that music therapy looks very different from session to session and person to person. In fact, some music therapy interventions may look more like therapy to you than others (e.g. when someone is holding out a paddle drum in a particular way to encourage an increase in range of motion). In this series, however, I am going to focus on those sessions when it may look like we’re just singing songs.

It turns out that a lot more is going on than appears on the surface.

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