Music and Science Meet…Music Therapy

Mike Lawson • Features • August 12, 2017

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Your music students can take the gifts of their passion, talent and skill, beyond their school performance days with a career in music therapy.

Modern music therapy became a norm in the Veteran’s Administration hospitals during and after both World Wars. In its most basic form the playing of recordings on the Victrola in WW I, hospitals had measurable positive effects on the wounded and shell-shocked patients. This began the use of a somewhat primitive music therapy in all American military hospitals. This practice was primarily in psychiatric situations but measureable improvement in healing was also observed in other medical situations. The modern music therapy profession grew out of the military hospital experiences. Musicians had joined the medical team. Recently the profession has seen significant media attention with both ABC and NBC doing extensive coverage of the role music therapy has played in a variety of environments. NBC Nightly News and others feature stories about remarkable recoveries that have involved music therapy. The National Memorial Day Concert broadcast by PBS honored a military policeman injured by an IED and the role music therapy had played in his treatment. Just recently, a special Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts event in partnership with the National Institutes of Health and noted opera singer Renee’ Fleming launched Sound Health, a program designed to further explore the connections between music, health and wellness. Fleming has been a strong advocate of music therapy.

My Experience

Healing and recuperation after heart bypass surgery is both boring, time consuming and prone to depressive thoughts. The appearance of the music therapist, guitar in hand, is initially regarded with some suspicion about whether a tip will be expected. After being assured that the private recital is part of the Tallahassee Memorial Cardiac Care regimen, the patient relaxes to a variety of soothing tunes. In fact, the monitoring station that tracks all cardiac ICU patients records the positive impact the music is having on that patient’s various vital signs.

Now, two years later, this meaningful career path that combines the passion of music and the intellect and science of the high growth health care industry, is becoming more widely known. This is long overdue to a profession that may actually predate all other medical skills and practices! Music and rhythm have been used in cultures that pre-date any records. Certainly, there are numerous images from early civilizations, the many Bible references and the practices and legends of tribal cultures all around the world. The medicine man and his equivalents all utilized incantations, chants, percussion and song in performing their healing ceremonies.

Medical Environment

The hospital environment develops at least three different approaches to music therapy. These include neurological, physical, and occupational therapy. In all cases the music therapist is part of a medical team of specialists. Recent high image situations including Congresswoman “Gabby” Gifford and police ambush victim Nick Tullier involve neurological music therapy as do stroke and other brain impaired situations.

Maegan Morrow trained as an operatic soprano with her eyes and motivation set upon a career in performance/performing. She was raised in a family where music was significantly present, including a father who played violin, mother who sang in the church choir, and an uncle who performed in a nationally recognized religious singing group. Formal training and an admonition by her teacher against even considering a career in music therapy with her bright promising future in the performing arena. An event during a mission trip involving children with special needs changed Maegan’s future.

Maegan’s employer, TIRR Memorial Hermann, is a nationally-recognized rehabilitation and research center, part of the Houston Medical center. TIRR Memorial Hermann was recently featured on NBC Nightly News for their current treatment of Nick Tullier, the Baton Rouge Sherriff’s Deputy shot in an ambush. The TIRR Memorial Hermann Neurological Music Therapists are working in conjunction with speech therapists to restore Tullier’s ability to speak after his severe brain trauma from a bullet wound. The other in-hospital Music Therapy activities work with Physical therapists and Occupational therapists to address the specific individual patient’s needs. TIRR Memorial Hermann has two full-time Music Therapists serving their 134-bed facility.

Educational Environment

In the educational environment, the Fulton County (Atlanta area) School System is an example of what can be accomplished with music therapy. This system is the nation’s largest music therapy practicing school system. It applies music therapy to the special needs students across known. This is long overdue to a profession that may actually predate all other medical skills and practices!

Music and rhythm have been used in cultures that pre-date any records. Certainly, there are numerous images from early civilizations, the many Bible references and the practices and legends of tribal cultures all around the world. The medicine man and his equivalents all utilized incantations, chants, percussion and song in performing their healing ceremonies.

Other Environments

Music therapy is being actively employed with dementia patients with songs from earlier stages of the patient’s life producing improved memory recall, positive changes in mood and emotional state, and promotion of interest and interaction with others. While these are only addressing the symptoms, the results are positive to both patients and caregivers. Even patients with advanced dementia are seen to tap a beat and sometimes sing-along with an old song. These improvements are seen even with patients that no longer remember who they are.

In the senior facilities environment music activities have been seen to produce revived interest, increased physical activity and capability, and has replaced boredom with social interaction. Life is fun again.

Music Therapy Education

This is not a “pick up your guitar and go sing” activity, nor is it a technical or trade school venture. While the AMTA supports and applauds those who share their music-making and time, the clinical music therapist is a professional that practices research based discipline and utilizes scientific methods of treatment. Both Bachelor and Masters degrees are offered in Music Therapy. A minimum of a Bachelors degree and 1200 hours of clinical experience through internship are required to receive professional certification. In many states, special occupational licensing is also required.

The AMTA maintains a list of eighty Colleges and Universities that offer music therapy degrees. Over 180 Internship Roster sites are also listed with clients or patients in every age range from pre-natal to senior with over thirty types of populations that include everything from abuse to visual impairment.

When all the education and internship are completed the Certification Board for Music Therapy Certification (CBMT) will approve the Music Therapist to begin their challenging and rewarding careers. The CBMT will also monitor the continuing education requirements to assure compliance with that additional career requirement.

The current President-elect of the AMTA may well represent a typical path from college education and marching band experience to accomplished Music Therapist. Amber Weldon-Stephens attended the University of Georgia (UGA) earning an undergraduate degree in Music Therapy. This was followed with a Masters degree from Georgia State in multiple and sensory disabilities and also a Specialist degree in special education administration from the State University of West Georgia. Her role in creating the music therapy department at the Fulton County School System serves as a model for school systems all across the country. She currently serves the school system as the Department Head and Clinical Training Director.

Before becoming the President-elect of AMTA she has served as President of the Music Therapy Association of Georgia and in various AMTA Board functions. She also continues to be active on the faculty of Kennesaw State University and remains true to her marching and concert band heritage teaching drum majors for the last 23 years at the UGA Redcoat Summer Band Camp for high school students!

The Opportunity

For further information about this career opportunity visit the American Music Therapy Association website at Information about the certification process is available on the Certification Board site at

FAQ From the Music Therapy Association at 

What is Music Therapy?

Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. (American Music Therapy Association definition, 2005)

What do music therapists do?

Music therapists assess emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities, and cognitive skills through musical responses; design music sessions for individuals and groups based on client needs using music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance, and learning through music; participate in interdisciplinary treatment planning, ongoing evaluation, and follow up.

Who can benefit from music therapy?

Children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly with mental health needs, developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease and other aging related conditions, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, and acute and chronic pain, including mothers in labor.

Where do music therapists work?

Music therapists work in psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitative facilities, medical hospitals, outpatient clinics, day care treatment centers, agencies serving persons with developmental disabilities, community mental health centers, drug and alcohol programs, senior centers, nursing homes, hospice programs, correctional facilities, halfway houses, schools, and private practice.

Who is qualified to practice music therapy?

Persons who complete one of the approved college music therapy curricula (including an internship) are then eligible to sit for the national examination offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. Music therapists who successfully complete the independently administered examination hold the music therapist-board certified credential (MT-BC). The National Music Therapy Registry (NMTR) serves qualified music therapy professionals with the following designations: RMT, CMT, ACMT. These individuals have met accepted educational and clinical training standards and are qualified to practice music therapy.

What are some misconceptions about music therapy?

That the client or patient has to have some particular music ability to benefit from music therapy — they do not. That there is one particular style of music that is more therapeutic than all the rest — this is not the case. All styles of music can be useful in effecting change in a client or patient’s life. The individual’s preferences, circumstances and need for treatment, and the client or patient’s goals help to determine the types of music a music therapist may use.

How is music therapy utilized in schools?

Music therapists are often hired in schools to provide music therapy services listed on the Individualized Education Plan for mainstreamed special learners. Music learning is used to strengthen nonmusical areas such as communication skills and physical coordination skills which are important for daily life.


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