What is Music Therapy?

What is Music Therapy?

Music Therapy.  This service is getting more attention and more and more people are becoming familiar with.  But, do you really know what it means?  It is obvious by the term itself, that music is involved, and there is some therapeutic benefit.  But, ask any music therapist or family receiving music therapy, it goes much deeper than that.  

In accordance with the American Music Therapy Association website, a music therapist is an individual who has completed one of the approved college music therapy curricula (including an internship) and successfully completed the independently administered examination and hold the music therapist-board certified credential (MT-BC). (The National Music Therapy Registry (NMTR) serves qualified music therapy professionals with the following designations: RMT, CMT, ACMT. These individuals have met accepted educational and clinical training standards and are qualified to practice music therapy) (American Music Therapy Association, n.d.).

Music therapy is 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. (American Music Therapy Association definition, 2005).  Okay, okay, so what does this really mean?  The basic points are this: music therapy is facilitated by an individual with the appropriate education, training and certification.  In a music therapy session, the therapist is working on the individual’s non-musical goals.  These goals are unique to each child, and vary from child to child.

I work at a facility called Pasadena Child Development Associates, Inc., commonly referred to as PCDA. What is unique at this non-profit pediatric clinic is the implementation of a model of therapy called DIR®/Floortime.  This therapeutic approach is implemented within all the services provided, Music Therapy, Adapted Music Lessons, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Feeding Therapy, Social Skills Therapy, Social Emotional Developmental Intervention, Developmental Behavioral Counseling, etc.  This approach focuses on the child as a whole, and not just the child that comes to the clinic for their weekly sessions.  

We all behave differently in different situations, and around different people, so I as the music therapist, want to ensure that I am supporting the child in a way that will transfer to all these other environments.  This might include consultation with the other therapists working with the child (both at school and in other clinic settings), receiving consultation from the other multidisciplinary professionals at PCDA, and most importantly, the parents.  All of the sessions focus on the integration of the family.  Not only are parents present during each session, they are an active part of the therapeutic process.  My goal as a professional is to ultimately provide the parents with the support and tools necessary for them to independently support their child’s growth and development.  The reality is that a child cannot be in therapy their whole life.  Therefore, part of the session is spent to educate and model for the parents, in hopes they can successfully take the techniques and approaches with them into their home, at the park, while shopping, etc.  

Now for the fun stuff!  What does a music therapy session really look like?  Most of our sessions begin with a hello song.  We make sure to sing to everyone in the room, and sometimes even the instruments!  Then the rest of the session is filled with active music making activities.  While keeping each child’s goals in mind, we use piano, guitar, percussion, recorded songs and movement.  We improvise, create our own songs, make up new words to nursery rhymes and dance.  If a child is working on communication, we might use a technique called fill in the blank.  This is where the last word of the phrase is left out, providing an opportunity for the child to response.  For example, if we were to sing “Twinkle, twinkle, little _______,” I would bet most of you filled in the blank with the word star!  We also use a technique called piggyback lyrics, where we take a familiar song, and change the words to reflect what is happening.  Most of you have already used this technique, if you’ve sung “This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands……”  But, do you know what the actual song is?  If you guessed Mulberry Bush, you would be correct! 

While these techniques and strategies seem fun, they’re most importantly, non-threatening to the children we work with.  With the education, knowledge and experience of a board-certified music therapist, music therapy has the power to touch the hearts of children and their families.  Music therapy can affect the brain in ways that no other service can.  Most importantly, music therapy is an irreplaceable service with results that sing for themselves! 

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Written by: Melissa St. John, MT-BC See other articles by Melissa St. John, MT-BC
About the Author:

Melissa St. John, MT-BC, is director of the PCDA Creative Arts department and has over 10 years experience working with children with developmental disabilities.  She is a board certified Music Therapist and a Certified Neurologic Music Therapist who specializes in treating children utilizing a variety of music modalities, with and emphasis on improvisation.  Melissa has a special interest in working with children on the autism spectrum, medically fragile conditions and social emotional development.  She received Music Therapy degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and is currently pursuing her Masters of Neurologic Music Therapy through Colorado State University.  Melissa received her clinical training through the Central Wisconsin Center for Developmentally Disabled, serving children, adults and geriatrics with a range of developmental disabilities. It was in this setting that she gained a true appreciation for the interdisciplinary approach.

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