Music has the power to heal and uplift the soul. If you have a passion for music and a desire to bring joy to others through your musical talents, you may have thought about becoming a music therapist. These professionals typically work with patients who are struggling with various medical conditions and can benefit from the uplifting power of music.
The process of becoming a music therapist may look a little different from one state to the next. This is because each state has the authority to develop its own music therapist requirements, including licensure. Before you embark on your journey to become a music therapist, it’s important to research the requirements for the state in which you would like to work.
What Is Music Therapy?
During and after World War II, injured servicemembers received comprehensive healthcare services, including occupational therapy, physical reconditioning and music therapy. In fact, the U.S. War Department first formally acknowledged the role of music therapy as early as 1945. Since that time, the profession has evolved and grown; now, music therapy benefits people of all ages and occupations—military and non-military alike.1
Music therapy relies on clinical and evidence-based interventions to support and improve a patient’s cognitive, behavioral, social, emotional, physical and overall wellness. It can be used to alleviate chronic or acute pain, assist with communication and manage stress. Music therapy is appropriate for patients of all ages and for a range of medical conditions. These include—but are certainly not limited to—developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, substance use disorder, brain injuries and physical disabilities.
Music therapy can provide a range of benefits, including the following:2
- Manage acute and chronic pain
- Reduce stress
- Lessen muscle tension
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve memory
- Enhance social skills and communication
- Develop self-regulation and coping skills
- Aid in recovery from trauma
- Improve motor functions
What Does a Music Therapist Do?
Music therapists are responsible for conducting thorough assessments of their clients. These assessments inform an individualized treatment plan and shape the goals of therapy. Music therapists must also develop a harmonious working relationship with each client within a soothing, non-judgmental environment.
Music therapy can involve any type of musical instrument as well as singing. It’s not necessary for the client to have any prior musical knowledge or skill. There is an emphasis on the client’s self-expression rather than on formal musical training.
During each music therapy session, the therapist and client may listen to music, write songs, or perform and discuss music. Each session is individually designed to allow the client to progress toward their treatment goals. In the case of a patient who has suffered a stroke, for example, the goal of music therapy may be to recover lost communication skills.
Where Do Music Therapists Work?
Music therapists can work in a range of settings. Most often, they work in hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities and substance abuse treatment centers. These professionals can also work in schools, private practices, juvenile detention facilities and centers for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Becoming a Music Therapist
Now that you know what music therapists do, you may have already decided to begin the process of becoming a music therapist. If you’re still in high school, talk to your guidance counselor about your career goals. Your guidance counselor can help you adjust your course load to suit your aspirations; they may also help you look up the legal requirements for working as a music therapist in your state.
You can use your high school classes to lay a foundation for your post-secondary academic career. Of course, you should take as many music-related courses as possible, such as music theory, history and performance. However, other courses may also be helpful; in particular, you may benefit from courses in psychology or counseling, sociology, child or human lifespan development, healthcare or nursing.
As you approach your senior year in high school, it’s time to start researching music therapy and music performance degree options. But before you select a college and a program, you’ll need to research the requirements in your state. Some states do require music therapists to be board certified through the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) — a national organization that certifies music therapists in all 50 states.
Employers in other states may prefer board certification, even if it isn’t mandatory. Additionally, know that some states that do not currently require certification may later pass legislation to require it. For example, board certification is not currently required in Arizona, although efforts have been made by legislators to require music therapists to obtain certification from the CBMT.
If you are required by your state to be certified, you’ll need to check the CBMT requirements for certification and ensure that the degree program you choose meets those standards. Once you choose and enroll in a degree program, you can expect four years of full-time study. During this time, you’ll refine your skills as a musician and explore the evidence-based practices of music therapy. After graduation, you may sit for the board certification exam (if applicable) before moving on to find your first job as a professional music therapist.
Earning Your Music Therapy or Music Performance Degree
You may choose to earn a music performance degree, which will focus on refining your skills as a musician and solidifying your knowledge of music theory. The exact curriculum will depend on the specific school and music performance program you choose. In general, however, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- The use of music as an expression of culture, worldview and personal beliefs
- The organizational structures that underlie musical expression, with a look at rhythm, melody and harmony
- The techniques of scoring and arranging music for orchestral instruments, such as strings and woodwinds
- The fundamentals and techniques of conducting, including baton technique, left hand technique and conducting terminology
A music performance degree program is usually a mix of classroom instruction and hands-on practice, with a greater emphasis on the latter. You can expect to practice your musical talents in groups and in private instruction.
Because a music performance degree doesn’t focus on music therapy, it’s a good idea to choose your electives wisely. Take psychology and counseling courses, as well as any relevant healthcare or nursing courses. Upon graduation, you can pursue a career as a non-certified music therapist in any state that does not have board certification requirements.
If you choose to enroll in a music therapy degree program, you should choose one that has been accredited by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA); this indicates the coursework meets the standards for board certification from the CBMT. In this type of program, you can expect a unique blend of music instruction and mental health counseling coursework.
Your curriculum may include topics such as the following:
- Music therapy theories and methodologies for patients of varying age ranges
- Music psychotherapy theories, with a look at guided imagery methods and group dynamics
- The psychological development of people of varying age ranges
- Psychopathology and clinically defined psychological illnesses
- Fundamentals of creative art therapies
- Theories of counseling and psychotherapy
Your music therapy program should also include a clinical internship. This will give you an opportunity to practice your skills under the close supervision of an experienced, board-certified music therapist. When you graduate from an AMTA-accredited music therapy degree program, you will qualify to sit for the board certification exam.
Do Music Therapists Need a Graduate Degree?
The process of becoming a music therapist doesn’t require a master’s or doctoral degree in music therapy. The only time this may be required is if you graduated from a non-AMTA-accredited degree program and you later decide that you would like to pursue CBMT board certification. An AMTA-accredited graduate degree program may qualify you to sit for the exam.
Music Therapist Requirements for Board Certification
You will need to meet the music therapist requirements for board certification from the CBMT if your employer or state requires you to obtain board certification or licensure, or if you are opting for voluntary board certification to prove your commitment to delivering high-quality services. If you do decide to pursue the MT-BC credential (Music Therapist-Board Certified) from the CBMT, you’ll first need to ensure that your degree program was accredited by the American Music Therapy Association.
Assuming that you did graduate from an accredited music therapy program, the next step is to submit an application as a candidate to the CBMT, along with the exam fee. You can schedule your in-person exam at one of more than 200 testing centers throughout the U.S. and abroad.
After you’ve graduated with your degree, you may want to take a month or two to study for the exam before you schedule it. The CBMT offers self-assessment exams (available for a fee), which are essentially practice tests that you can use to assess your readiness to take the exam.
The CBMT board certification exam covers multiple domains or topic areas, including the following:
- Safety – This domain includes safety issues such as infection control/instrument sanitation and medical contraindications for music therapy.
- Referral, assessment, interpretation of assessment and treatment planning – This domain covers the assessment of clients’ functional levels, evaluation of their medical and assistive needs, consideration of cultural contexts and processes of treatment planning.
- Treatment implementation and documentation – This domain explores the establishment of a therapeutic relationship between the client and music therapist, the methodology and practices toward reaching therapeutic goals and the documentation of the client’s progress.
- Evaluation and termination of treatment – This domain covers how to determine when termination of therapeutic treatment is appropriate and how music therapists can create a smooth transition toward termination.
- Professional development and responsibilities – This last domain explores the responsibilities and ethical code of music therapists, including standards of professional conduct.
After you pass the CBMT exam, you are officially a board-certified music therapist and are qualified to pursue your first job. Do keep in mind that you will need to recertify your credential every five years. The recertification requires a certain number of continuing education (CE) credits.
MT-BCs can earn CE credits through a CBMT-approved provider. The CBMT encourages MT-BCs to earn credits each year and submit their credits annually. A total of 100 credits, including three ethics credits, are required every five years for recertification.
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Effective Music Therapists
Music therapists are both musicians and mental health therapists. As such, they can benefit from having the skills and characteristics that are essential for both professions. These include the following:
- Empathy and a genuine desire to help others overcome their challenges
- Imagination, creativity and improvisation
- Communication and interpersonal skills
- Patience, tactfulness and friendliness
- Sensitivity and intuitiveness
Of course, it’s also necessary for music therapists to possess an enduring love of music and an ear for musical compositions and structures.
Is There a Demand for Music Therapists?
The agency that tracks job growth statistics and develops future projections is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which does not track data for music therapists specifically. Rather, it groups music therapists together in the general category of recreational therapists.
As of September 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for recreational therapists to increase by about 10% from 2020 to 2030, as fast as average, accounting for an estimated increase of 2,200 jobs in the field.3
The opportunities for music therapists are expected to be particularly robust for those who work with the aging population. This is because there are considerable benefits of music therapy for older people who have suffered a stroke, developed Alzheimer’s disease or sustained an injury that affects mobility or other areas of functioning. Music therapists may also work with children and youths, as well as veterans who are dealing with service-related conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You can pursue your passion for music and find purpose for your future career when you become a student at Grand Canyon University—an accredited, Christian school. The College of Arts and Media is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Arts in Music with an Emphasis in Instrumental Performance degree program, which instills a solid foundation of musical competencies for a future career as a music therapist, professional musician or music instructor. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about joining our dynamic learning community.
1American Music Therapy Association, Music Therapy and Military Populations in June 2022.
2Cleveland Clinic, Music Therapy in June 2022.
3COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2020, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Recreational Therapists.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.