What is Music Therapy?

A decade ago, a friend of mine quit her job – a very successful one – in the commercial music industry to retrain as a music therapist. This unexpected change provoked me to find out more about this fascinating and, what I discovered to be an often very moving type of therapy. Music is known for its potential to break down barriers. Therapy helps not only improve the health and quality of life for individuals, but also has the capacity to bestow someone entirely new methods of communication.

At MusicMaps, we are a very fortunate to have music therapists amongst our Guides. Natasha is one such person and we put some questions to Natasha to find out a little more…

In a nutshell, what is music therapy?

Music Therapy is a therapeutic intervention which looks at change and improvements in communication, physical, social, cognitive and emotional needs. It involves both functional and psychological aims and approaches differ according to the type of client group. Functional goals help to develop cognition, speech, communication and motor skills, whereas psychological goals incorporate emotional and mental health needs. Music therapist’s use different elements of music such as tempo, melody, rhythm and harmony to encourage and facilitate emotional expression, social interaction and cognitive skills.

How did you get into it?

I heard about music therapy at age of 17. From that moment I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but it was another 9 years before I became a qualified music therapist! I completed a Bachelor of Music Undergraduate degree at Bangor University and moved back home to set up my own business running interactive music sessions in primary schools, nurseries, community centres and residential homes. I learnt and gained so much experience over three years as well as cementing my desire to complete the music therapy training. I then started the two year full time masters course at Guildhall School of Music & Drama and in 2015 qualified as a registered music therapist. I now work with a fantastic organisation providing music therapy across London and Buckinghamshire 4 days a week.

What does a typical day involve?

A typical music therapy day….well there isn’t a typical music therapy day! One important aspect of being a music therapist is flexibility and adaptability. Within my week I work in schools, community centres, hospitals and clients homes, working with children and adults of all ages, with a range of communication, physical and emotional needs. I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work with a wide range of clients during the week, some individually and some in groups.

What do you do in sessions?

Each session is tailored to the needs and aims of the client, for example, a 6 year old child with autism entails a very different approach to running a community singing group for elderly people. Music Therapy sessions offer a wide range of activities including singing, improvising, drumming, song writing, and use of instruments. Most sessions are predominantly client-led, although often a structured approach is used to help develop focus and engagement on activities, as well as offering a familiar structure each week. Technology may also be used within sessions to enable or develop communication, motor skills and cognition.

How does it work?

Music activates all areas of the brain giving it a unique position as a therapeutic tool. When making music, singing, speaking and listening are done together, more parts of your brain are activated, creating improvements in awareness, thinking, mood, concentration and motivation – the important thing is that this activity has a lasting effect. The immediate positive feedback of music-making reduces anxiety, improves mood and increases motivation, thereby possibly encouraging participation in other activities or lessons.

Goals are usually non-musical. For example, a goal for one of your clients may be to decrease anxiety and engage with one social activity per week such as a phone call to a family member or a trip to the local shop. Wherever possible, we use appropriate outcome measures to see if the therapy is a beneficial intervention. Sometimes Music Therapy can act as a stepping stone into the next level of social engagement or motivation to make changes in a person’s life. Music Therapy is a safe space to bring issues or difficulties, a goal may simply be to provide a place where a client can bring their thoughts and emotions and express them in a nonverbal way through music.

Why do you think Music Therapy is important?

It is estimated that 1 in 4 people in England will experience a mental health problem in any given year. (NHS Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey).  Mental health problems are a growing public health concern in the UK with anxiety and depression being the most common mental health disorders in Britain. Music therapy is a recognised effective psychological intervention within the care of children and adults with mental illness. It can have a positive impact on negative symptoms experienced with a mental health illness, such as motivation, social withdrawal and responsiveness.

Musical improvisation in a group with a music therapist may offer someone experiencing or recovering from a mental illness the opportunity to relate safely with other people, as well as explore and express feelings that may be too difficult to verbalise. Music therapy can also offer moments of positivity and encourage self-confidence to support low mood and self worth in clients with mental health issues.

If you want to find out more about music therapy or are interested in training have a look at these websites: