Music Therapist

woman playing violin

In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona. He killed six people, including nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, and injured 13 others, including former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She sustained a critical injury to her brain from being shot in the head.

Music therapy was a vital part of Giffords’ recovery process, particularly with helping her regain the ability to speak.

In a February 24, 2015 People magazine article by Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, Giffords is quoted as saying, “Music therapy was so important in the early stages of my recovery because it can help retrain different parts of your brain to form language centers in areas where they weren’t before you were injured”.

“Music, in fact, uses more parts of the brain than any other function.”
– Elena Mannes, author of The Power of Music

Music therapists work with a wide range of people, from those suffering from  dementia or Parkinson’s or depression or schizophrenia, to asthmatic patients or autistic kids, chemotherapy patients dealing with pain and nausea or even infants, who were born prematurely, to help them sleep.

If you have a passion for music and helping people, then you may be in sync with… on the same wavelength as… harmonious with…. a career as a music therapist!

What is Music Therapy?

According to the American Music Therapy Association, “…clinical music therapy is the only professional, research-based discipline that actively applies supportive science to the creative, emotional, and energizing experiences of music for health treatment and educational goals.”

Music Therapy is a profession established within the healthcare and human services sectors. Qualified music therapists work with patients or clients that need help with physical, cognitive, emotional, social or psychological functioning. For some, music therapy may serve as just one of the important pieces of their treatment plans.

Just some of the positive outcomes from music therapy include, providing a communication outlet for individuals who have problems expressing themselves and their feelings, inspiring individuals to participate in treatment, providing a bonding experience among clients and their loved ones, and encouraging or facilitating movement.

In the U.S., music therapy dates back at least to the late 1700s when Columbian Magazine published the article “Music Physically Considered.” According to Seattle Music Therapy, the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts incorporated music therapy in the 1830s; and the profession became established post World War I and II when musicians were hired to help injured and traumatized veterans.

In 1944, notes the American Music Therapy Association, Michigan State University became the first university to offer a music therapy education program.

If you are interested in completing a degree to become a music therapist, check out the “Explore Your Career Path” section below.

Music Therapists At a Glance

  • Degree Level Requirements: Bachelor’s degree (minimum)
  • Licensure Requirements: National certification; some states regulate music therapists as well
  • Median Annual Salaries: $44,000*
  • Job Outlook: 13% between 2012 and 2022**

Career & Job Description

Where? Music therapists and similar professionals may work in private practice, hospitals, daycares, schools, mental health clinics, in community agencies, early intervention programs, long-term-care facilities, hospices, correctional facilities,  rehabilitation centers, and other settings.

Who? Music therapists work with many different people and communities, young and old, like military veterans, special education students (students with disabilities), Alzheimer’s patients, individuals with the autism spectrum disorder, incarcerated populations or individuals being supervised in community corrections settings, young children with developmental delays, those who have undergone a crisis or trauma, patients with chronic pain, individuals with a mental illness, and more.

What? After getting to know their patients, music therapists can create individualized plans tailored to their patients’ needs, interests and goals. They employ “music therapy interventions,” such as creating music, listening to music or moving to music, to accomplish treatment outcomes.

In a PsychCentral blog (“Can Music Tame Your Inner Beast? Music Therapy for Mental Health”), music therapist Saakshi Arora describes five music therapy interventions: clients/patients writing their own songs, analyzing lyrics of songs to get in touch with personal emotions or struggles, creating music together on-the-spot—improvising (this can be done without instruments), expressing oneself through art, movement, relaxation, reflection, storytelling or other ways after or while listening to music, and playing instruments as a means of communication, to foster creativity and to build motor, social or cognitive skills, memory and self esteem.

Music therapy can take place one-on-one or in group settings. Music therapists may also work as a consultant or coach to family members, caregivers, teachers, healthcare professionals and other applicable persons.

Did You Know?

 Music Therapist is considered a Bright Outlook Occupation according to O*NET Online. It describes, “Bright Outlook occupations” as “expected to grow rapidly in the next several years, will have large numbers of job openings, or are new and emerging occupations.”


Music Therapist Salary

Consulting the “O*NET-SOC to Occupational Outlook Handbook Crosswalk,” produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “music therapists” are “equivalent” to the “recreational therapist” job title found in the Standard Occupational Classification System and in the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Thus, consulting the BLS salary data, as of May 2014, the median salary for recreational therapists was $44,000/year; the top 10 percent made $69,230 and the bottom 10 percent made $27,150 or less.

Other Sources citing music therapist salary information:

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) conducts an annual survey of its members—the majority of whom live in the U.S., but membership is represented in over 30 countries worldwide—and others in the field. Salary details are among the information presented in the yearly survey reports.

The “2013 AMTA Member Survey and Workforce Analysis” revealed that the average salary for music therapists, based on survey responses, was $51,899 per year.

The Berklee College of Music’s “Music Careers in Dollars and Cents” (2012) provides some insight on how music therapist salaries vary depending on workplace and job description. For example, the Career Development Center at Berklee College of Music found that, a few years back, those practicing music therapy in a nursing home earned, on average, $42,986 per year, versus $48,527 at an inpatient psychiatric union, $50,000 working in an early intervention program or $60,000 at a college/university.

Sources: ; ; ;
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”~ Plato


The Educational Journey

To become a certified music therapist you must complete at least a Bachelor’s degree, complete clinical training and gain certification through the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

To become credentialed through the Certification Board for Music Therapists, you must meet the educational and clinical training requirements set out by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

First of all you must complete a music therapy degree from a college or university approved by the AMTA. The degree can be a Bachelor’s degree; or for those who already have an undergraduate degree (not necessarily in music therapy), some schools offer music therapy degrees at the Master’s level. (Some pre-requisites may be required, such as coursework in psychology and entry-level music classes.)

The education of a music therapist is unique among college degree programs because it not only allows a thorough study of music, but encourages examination of one’s self as well as others,” states the AMTA. “The undergraduate curriculum includes coursework in music therapy, psychology, music, biological, social and behavioral sciences, disabilities and general studies.” The AMTA adds that graduate programs generally examine the academic, clinical and professional aspects of the career more extensively and also feature research work.

An AMTA-approved music therapy program also includes a clinical training or practicum aspect—1,200 clinical hours are a requirement before seeking certification.

Music Can…

  • Reduce stress
  • Help patients cope with pain
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Decrease heart and respiratory rates
  • Reduce muscle tension
  • Boost immunity
  • And More!

Certification Requirements

Once you complete an AMTA-approved education program and the required clinical training hours, you are eligible to sit for the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT)’s exam  (The CBMT is accredited by the National Commission  for Certifying Agencies, which also accredits a variety of other organizations, like the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners and the National Board for Certified Counselors).

Candidates who successfully complete the certification exam earn the MT-BC (Music Therapist-Board Certified) credential. To maintain certification—recertification takes place every five years—credentialed music therapists must take the certification exam again, or complete 100 professional development and continuing education credits. Credits can be earned in a variety of ways, from taking courses and workshops and attending conferences to completing self-study programs, thesis work, service to organizations or supervising interns.

Note, the MT-BC credential is a national certification. Some states also regulate music therapists— i.e. requiring them to be licensed or registered—as well. Visit the “State Licensure” page on the Certification Board for Music Therapists’ website for more information.

  • Reference & Data Information Provided by the Following:
  • * May 2014 (for Recreational Therapists, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • ** 2012-2022 (for Recreational Therapists, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • † Salary data from US BLS
  • ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS
  • Other Sources/References