Music Therapy Across The Lifespan
Updated: Jun 8
At dinner parties I always prepare to get surprised looks when I answer the question “What do you do?”, with “I’m a music therapist”. Although many people haven’t heard of the profession, before I explain what it is, almost everyone tends to share a personal experience of how music has touched their lives in a meaningful way.
The Canadian Association of Music Therapists defines music therapy as a discipline in which credentialed professionals (MTA) use music purposefully within therapeutic relationships to support development, health, and well-being. Like any other professional therapist, an MTA always begins with assessment sessions in which we determine our client’s goal areas. These can range from improving communication and physical functioning after stroke, improving social skills of a child with autism, increasing emotional expression of an adult with depression, and so much more. We then develop a treatment plan using selected music therapy interventions to address these goals. Music therapy interventions include improvisation, song-writing, re-creative music making, and receptive experiences.
To become a credentialed music therapist one must complete a music therapy university program, a 1,000 hour clinical internship under supervision, and pass the board certifying exam. In Canada, there are 5 music therapy education programs, including bachelor’s degrees, graduate diplomas and master’s programs. After completing these steps, music therapists are trained to work with individuals of all ages and abilities.
Here are some of the people music therapists work with:
Children with Special Needs Music therapists work with children with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, speech and communication disorders, and other developmental and physical challenges. A music therapist might use improvisatory interventions with a child who is non-verbal. This would provide the child with a tool for self-expression, helping them to feel empowered and heard through music making. Music therapists also work on acquiring motor skills such as range of motion, crossing midline, and grasping. These are all important steps and milestones for the child’s development and can be achieved through music by its accessible and motivating factors.
Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease Most of the time, individuals with dementia & Alzheimer’s disease are able to recall a familiar song, sing along, and engage through music. Music therapists use interventions including singing, drum playing and improvising to maintain cognitive stimulation, improve social interaction, and provide a means for self-expression. In long-term care settings, a music therapist on site may receive a referral for a new resident who is having difficulty adjusting to their new living situation. This resident might be exhibiting frustration and anger, and may have anxiety. Through one- to- one music therapy sessions, the music therapist would develop a therapeutic rapport that engages this resident in socialization, helps to decrease anxious behaviours, and provides the resident with a meaningful form of expression.
These are just a couple of examples. Music therapists work in many other areas including palliative care, rehabilitation after stroke or injury, personal development and mental health, oncology, perinatal mental health, neonatal care, substance abuse, emotional trauma, and eating disorders. Some music therapists obtain further training in Neonatal Intensive Care Music Therapy, and Neurologic Music Therapy. You can find MTA’s in many settings, including hospitals, schools, group homes, hospice centres, rehabilitation centres, and private practice.
It is an exciting time to be in the growing field of music therapy. Most importantly, it is a pleasure to get to work with clients who are incredibly inspiring and to make a positive impact in their lives through music. It is truly an honour.
Founder & Director, Miya Music Therapy
Consultant, Ontario Music Therapy Academy