What Does a Music Therapist Do?

Music therapists are highly trained, board-certified practitioners who work with a wide variety of individuals to help manage pain, reduce stress, express emotion, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation. Their patients include those with developmental disorders, mental health disorders, neurological conditions, trauma, and other medical needs.

Aspiring music therapists are required to complete an internship at a site that meets the standards of the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), and must take a board certification exam in order to practice music therapy.

Working alone or alongside peers in other therapeutic specialties, music therapists assess their patients, establish individual goals to pursue, and then design music-based interventions to meet those goals. Depending on the treatment goals and their clients' particular needs, a session might involve creating, improvising, listening to, and/or performing music. In addition to any specialty instruments, music therapists are expected to play guitar, piano, and hand percussion at a high level, and to be well-versed in a wide variety of musical styles and genres, all of which can be helpful in treatment.

People in the Field

Maria Hernandez

Name:

Maria
Hernandez
Class of 
2004
Position: 
Music Therapist, Doctor

Music Therapist at a Glance

Career Path

Most aspiring music therapists start by earning an undergraduate degree in music therapy. As part of the degree, music therapy students complete 1,200 hours of clinical training with a variety of populations, including a specialized internship at a site that meets the standards of the American Music Therapy Association. After graduating, they take a certification exam—administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists, or the CBMT—to earn the credentials necessary to practice professionally.

In order to advance within the field, music therapists must continue professional development in the forms of clinical supervision, continuing-education credits, and advanced certifications. Today, more and more music therapists are seeking graduate degrees in music therapy, which open up opportunities in advanced clinical training, research, and academia. Music therapists may also incorporate other art forms into their practice, becoming creative arts therapists or expressive arts therapists.

Finding Work

Music therapists are employed in a wide variety of settings, including medical, mental health, hospice, rehabilitation, educational, and correctional facilities. Additionally, they may be employed in nursing homes, community centers, nonprofits, private practices, and independent music therapy companies. 

The world of music therapy is growing rapidly. Music therapists are advised to network within their field through alumni groups and industry organizations such as the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), as well as by attending national and regional conferences.

Professional Skills
  • Clinical musicianship on guitar, piano, percussion, and voice
  • Songwriting
  • Arranging
  • Client assessment
  • Establishing therapeutic relationships
  • Treatment planning
  • Research
  • Foundations in music (theory, history, and conducting)
Interpersonal Skills

This is a field where strong interpersonal skills are vital. The best music therapists are exceptionally perceptive when assessing a patient's needs and designing creative music-based experiences. This job also often requires high levels of empathy, emotional openness, and self-care. More than anything, a genuine desire to help others empower themselves through music is a fundamental quality for a music therapist.

Work Life

Music therapists work different hours depending on their employment situation. A music therapist who works for a school may observe traditional daytime business hours, while one who works at a hospital, private practice, or community center may have a less consistent schedule. In rare cases, travel may be required.