Do You NEED A Music Therapist?

In my years of experience as a music therapist, I have given many presentations on music therapy. I’ve written blog posts and articles and responded to email and phone inquiries. Along the way, I’ve encountered a lot of confusion about music therapy and what people like me do.

Pretty much everyone agrees that music is nice and lovely and even therapeutic, but people aren’t always sure that a music THERAPIST is necessary. (Plus, don’t those people cost money?!?)

Here’s the secret:

You don’t always need a music therapist.

Actually, if you’re relatively healthy, you can probably get a lot of benefits from music with a little self-awareness and maybe some quick Google searches for music in self-care tips (like those you read here!).

If you want or need a deeper experience in music, though, if you want to “work in the music,” if music is particularly meaningful or motivational for you, if you want a therapeutic relationship that centers around musical experiences, or if you have health concerns that hamper your abilities to benefit from healing music experiences on your own, then you may need direct services from or consultation with a music therapist. In fact, music therapists have the musical expertise and clinical knowledge to help people at any stage of life find better health through music.

Earlier this week, I gave a presentation for Senior Awareness, a group of eldercare professionals that has been meeting once a month at the Irene B. French community center in Shawnee Mission, Kansas for more than thirty years. (We meet the second Tuesday of the month from 11:45-1:15. You’re welcome to join us!) I’ve gotten to know lots of amazing, caring professionals in that group, and I’ve talked with a lot of them about my music therapy business. Still, I know a lot of my friends there still aren’t sure about what exactly I do and who exactly should hire me.

In the presentation I gave, I wanted to help everyone gain some clarity on when a music therapist is the person to hire – for direct music therapy services, to consult on music in caregiving, or to provide education on music in caregiving – and when healthcare professionals and other folks with few health concerns can get what they want from music on their own.

Your Soundscape: Beautiful Music, Beautiful Life

In my way of thinking, everyone has a sweet spot for music experiences – that place where they can access the kinds of musical experiences they want, for the benefits they want, at the level of assistance they need. This place is their ideal soundscape, where music meets life in a way that promotes healing and wholeness.

Do you need help getting to that ideal soundscape? Who helps? Here is the visual aid I came up with:


Notice that there are two axes on this chart. Along the bottom is the Music Scale, based on the intensity of music experiences and the person’s interest in music. Certainly, a healthy person may not need help from a music therapist to discover that listening to Pink Floyd makes them feel great. But, a healthy person who wants to play jazz piano may need more help than Google can provide. That’s when he’ll hire an expert musician for music lessons. (Of course, MT-BCs are expert musicians already, and they may have the skills to teach the instrument you wish to learn.) At the extreme end, where a healthy person wants to do some deep psychological exploration through music, he’ll definitely want to work with an MT-BC. In fact, for depth work like music psychotherapy or Guided Imagery and Music, you’ll need a music therapist with training beyond the basic requirements for the MT-BC.

Note: it’s important to recognize that this continuum is somewhat artificial. Listening to music, dancing, playing guitar – all of these can be for simple enjoyment or for deeper therapeutic “work,” depending on the person. Music therapists facilitate music experiences on the whole length of this continuum, for a variety of therapeutic purposes and have the flexibility to modify experiences as needs dictate. (That’s another benefit of working with an MT-BC that’s hard to show on a chart!)

The vertical axis is for the Life Scale, which is a measure of how much help someone needs – for day-to-day functioning in general, and for accessing meaningful music experiences specifically. Again, high-functioning people probably don’t need much help accessing routine musical experiences, like listening to the radio or attending concerts. Then, if you’re looking for some simpler experiences, like putting together a playlist to help you relax, you might be able to get the help you need from a healthcare professional with skills in that area. But if you’re in the early stages of dementia and want to write songs and create a legacy project for your family? You’re looking for an experience that requires significant musical AND clinical expertise. You want a music therapist. Then at the extreme end of the scale, you might have advanced dementia with agitation or a TBI with aphasia – even if you don’t think you’re particularly musical, music therapy may offer some unique benefits that other therapies do not. (But again, even folks with very severe disabilities can benefit from routine experiences like listening to the radio, and you don’t need an MT-BC for that.)

In general, the more help you need and the deeper you want to dive into music, the more likely you’ll want an MT-BC to help you.

The Importance of the MT-BC

Although you could have a music therapist providing services in any of the areas shown on the chart, it’s probably not necessary (or cost-effective) to have an MT-BC entertaining at the Christmas party or turning on your radio when you’re feeling sad. In any case, those services are not what we would call music therapy. When you start getting to the red zones of the chart above, though, you want a real music therapist, someone who is an experienced musician with solid expertise in the areas of health for which your or your loved one needs extra help. If you are going to hire someone to help you find healing and wholeness through music, you want a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC).

As of this writing, there are about 5000 MT-BCs in the United States. All of us have completed a degree program in music therapy approved by the American Music Therapy Association, completed a lengthy internship, and passed a board certification exam. We maintain our credential through continuing education. Our musical and clinical knowledge is on the cutting edge.

As music therapy has gained more and more attention in recent years, it has become imperative to bring attention to the MT-BC credential, to make sure that when you need a music therapist, you know that the person you’re getting has the expertise that you or your loved one deserve. We have been working to have the MT-BC credential recognized in each state, to ensure that members if the public (YOU!) know who you’re getting when you hire a music therapist.

I’ll close this post with an official blurb about the State Recognition Operational Plan, but if you have a minute, I do have two questions for you to answer. Please leave your responses in the comments section.

1. When have you used music on your own to help you or a loved one feel better?

2. Have you experienced music therapy? If not, when have you wished that you could have had a music therapist to help you or your loved one?


  1. musicsparks on January 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Your graphic to explain when professional music therapy assistance is needed is wonderful!

  2. Carolyn Stone on January 16, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Hi Rachelle,
    This is an excellent, informative post. Seems like something you would want on a page of your site to explain what you do.
    My family and I have always used music therapeutically for ourselves. I remember a time of great sadness when my husband and I took turns all evening choosing pieces of classical music to play (recorded) that expressed our feelings and soothed us.
    In his adolescence my son got into rock music and then heavy metal–oddly, or not so odd, it soothed his anger.
    Though I’ve never used music therapy, I chose the skilled nursing facility where my mother spent her last 6 years in part because of the very talented music therapist they employed. We gave the therapist sheet music and a hymnal and they had one on one sessions nearly until my mother died.
    You folks do good work, for sure.

  3. Ann Becker-Schutte (@DrBeckerSchutte) on January 23, 2013 at 11:10 am


    The graphic is so informative and educational! I have learned a ton from you and JoAnn Jordan about the extensive training that goes into earning a MT-BC credential, and I am thrilled that you are educating others about how much a music therapist can do!


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