What is a Music Therapy Degree?

Music therapists use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

Students who enter a music therapy degree program typically develop their skills as a musician on a primary instrument of their choice. They also learn at least basic skills in piano, guitar, percussion, and voice.

This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for the art of music, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them. Education programs in the field, therefore, combine all of these elements in courses that cover:

  • Fundamentals and Principles of Music Therapy
  • Biology / Human Growth and Development
  • Assessment – Determining Patient Needs
  • Designing Individualized Music Therapy Programs
  • Special Needs Care Techniques
  • Psychology
  • Communications

Program Options

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) sets the academic standards for degree programs in music therapy offered by colleges and universities.

Bachelor’s Degree in Music Therapy - Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in music therapy are focused on three main areas of instruction: musical foundations, clinical (medical/scientific) foundations, and music therapy foundations and principles. The topics covered in each of these areas are listed below:

Musical Foundations

  • Music Theory
  • Composition and Arranging
  • Music History and Literature
  • Applied Music Major
  • Ensembles
  • Conducting
  • Functional Piano, Guitar, and Voice

Clinical Foundations

  • Exceptionality and Psychopathology
  • Normal Human Development
  • Principles of Therapy
  • The Therapeutic Relationship

Music Therapy

  • Foundations and Principles
  • Assessment and Evaluation
  • Methods and Techniques
  • Pre-Internship and Internship Courses
  • Psychology of Music
  • Music Therapy Research
  • Influence of Music on Behavior

In addition, students take general education courses in English, math, social sciences, arts, humanities, and physical sciences.

Master’s Degree in Music Therapy - Two Year Duration
The master’s degree program in music therapy allows students to expand their clinical skills in advanced and specialized fields. Students may choose to focus on a particular music therapy method, a specific patient age group, management and administration in the field, or teaching music therapy at the college/university level.

Doctoral Degree in Music Therapy - Five to Seven Year Duration
Some schools offer doctoral programs in music therapy. These programs may focus on research, theory, teaching, and/or clinical administration.

Degrees Similar to Music Therapy

Music, of course, is the foundation of musical therapy. This degree field, therefore, presents another option to students. Depending on the level of degree, programs in this discipline may include courses in music theory, composition, and performance; as well as production techniques and methods and the business of music.

Music Education
While music therapy is dedicated to using music to support health and well-being, music education is about awakening students’ musicality and appreciation for music of all kinds.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn. As noted above, music therapy involves the psychological connection between music and well-being.

Therapeutic Recreation
Degree programs in therapeutic recreation train students how to plan and implement recreational activities, such as gardening, fishing, or horseback riding, that encourage the health and well-being of patients with physical, mental, or emotional challenges. The goal of music therapy is identical.

Social Work
Although social work is a wider field, like music therapy, it is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives.

Skills You’ll Learn

As is true for most degrees that involve healthcare and interacting with others, earning a musical therapy degree leaves graduates with a considerable transferrable skill set:

  • Social Perceptiveness – awareness of others’ feelings and why they react as they do
  • Integrity / Dependability – genuine concern for others
  • Listening – giving full attention to what others have to say
  • Speaking – effectively conveying information
  • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making – using logic and reasoning to consider issues and implement solutions
  • Service Orientation – a customer service mindset
  • Learning Strategies – choosing teaching methods and procedures that are right for the situation and for the learner
  • Assessment / Evaluation – monitoring performance and making adjustments as necessary
  • Negotiation and Persuasion – bringing people together to reconcile differences
  • Time Management – effectively and productively using one’s time
  • Stress Tolerance – dealing calmly with unexpected and challenging situations

What Can You Do with a Music Therapy Degree?

Healthcare is a very large employer of music therapists. In hospital settings, for example, music can be used to maintain a calm and soothing patient environment and promote healing. In nursing homes, music therapists working with Alzheimer’s patients will often play songs that are connected to their memories, or they will simply use music to encourage the elderly to stay mentally and physically active. Consider this list of occupational options within the healthcare field:

  • Hospitals and Medical Centers
  • Psychiatric Hospitals
  • Community Mental Health Centers
  • Retirement Homes / Senior Centers
  • Rehabilitation Facilities
  • Agencies serving persons with developmental challenges
  • Outpatient Clinics / Day Care Treatment Centers
  • Early Intervention Programs (for children with developmental delays)
  • Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities
  • Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Programs
  • Hospice Programs

Some public and private school systems have music therapy programs, in which therapists use music to promote communication in the classroom and help students manage behavioral issues and disabilities.

Increasingly, music therapists are finding work with prisons and halfway houses. In the words of Karen Anne Melendez, a board-certified music therapist at Rutgers University Correctional Health Care, ‘Participating in music therapy may be one of few times when a troubled person can constructively reflect on herself (himself) and choose a better way of living.’

Private Companies / Private Practice
There are private companies that hire or contract music therapists to go into hospitals, schools, and other settings.


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