By Stephanie Bolton MA, MT-BC
Board Certified Music Therapist, Fellow, Association for Music and Imagery (FAMI)
One of the most common misconceptions about music therapy is that the person receiving it needs to know all about music. I frequently tell people that “my job is to know the music; your job is to bring an open mind and a willingness to try something new!”
Sometimes we listen to music together in a session. And other times we might play instruments. Or even write a new song. Or maybe create and discuss a playlist. Other times clients want to learn (or re-learn!) how to play an instrument as part of their therapy process. And sometimes we may even create artwork while listening to music. What we do in any given session is determined by what the client needs and how we can best accomplish that through music. Music therapy sessions don’t always look the same for each client, or even from session to session! One of the things I love about music therapy is that it gives the client so many different options for addressing their struggles.
WHO BENEFITS FROM MUSIC THERAPY?
Anyone! But here’s a short list of who it can help–
military veterans and anyone dealing with PTSD and trauma
individuals struggling with mental health issues
older adults diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia (and their caregivers!)
those dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one
children diagnosed with learning disabilities (and their caregivers!)
cancer patients undergoing chemo and radiation therapies
those who have had a stroke and need to relearn how to walk or talk
WHAT ARE THE GOALS OF MUSIC THERAPY?
The goals are different for each client. But here are some general examples of areas we address in therapy–
decreasing stress and anxiety
improving communication skills
managing symptoms of pain
processing difficult emotions
developing healthy coping techniques
Research has shown that music therapy can be beneficial for managing pain and stress, increasing relaxation and self-awareness, and regulating body systems (like blood pressure and heart rate). Also, it can be used to address short or long-term problems. So a client could be seen for 6 months or a few years, depending on the specific issue.
Recently one of my clients said to me, “You know, I can sit at home and listen to music by myself. But it’s so much better when I do that here in your office with you.” So let’s unpack that a little bit and learn what makes music therapy different from simply listening to music– and what sets it apart from traditional ‘talk’ therapy.
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
As a board certified music therapist, I’m highly educated and extensively trained in understanding music and how it affects us emotionally, physiologically, mentally, and spiritually. Because of my in-depth knowledge of music, I know how to use it to best address your individual needs and concerns. I also have 25 years of experience working in a variety of different settings with a wide range of clients. If it helps, you can think of me as a musician and a therapist rolled into one. Music therapy sessions are generally a mixture of talking and playing/listening to music. How much we do of those things depends on the client and what they need that day. If you’re not a musician or haven’t played an instrument since your days in middle school band (if ever!) no worries! Remember, I’m the trained musician here. That’s my part of the job.
What on earth does my office have to do with anything? My office doesn’t have the distractions you might encounter while listening to music in your own home. You’ll be able to focus exclusively to what we’re doing musically in my office in ways that you wouldn’t be able to while listening to music on your own at home. Additionally, I have a variety of instruments available in my office that you likely don’t have lying around your house for making music if we need to.
We can all listen to and enjoy music by ourselves. I love sitting and listening to the whole thing all at once when one of my favorite music groups releases a new album. There’s nothing wrong with that at all! But think about this– isn’t it a better and richer experience when you can listen with another fan of that same group? You can point out things you hear or lyrics you like. Or you can make statements like “wow, I can’t wait to see them perform that in concert!” Suddenly, it becomes deeper and more meaningful because you’ve shared that experience with someone else who also ‘gets’ it. That’s part of what makes music therapy so impactful– it’s a shared experience. We can discuss the music together and talk about what we hear, how it makes us feel, the memories it evokes, the emotions it stirs up. It creates a connection and an understanding. Also, there are times when we don’t have the words to express how we feel, but music can. This is especially true for those times when I play instruments with my clients. Sometimes, beating on a drum is the best expression!
For more information about music therapy, check out the American Music Therapy Association website. You can find a listing of qualified music therapists in your area by checking out the Certification Board for Music Therapists here.