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FAQ: What is Music Therapy?

As a music therapist, this is probably the most frequently asked question. One of our pioneering music therapists in Canada, Carolyn Kenny, expresses this best,

"Every time someone asks me the question … I have to absorb the silence, center myself, and think 'My God, here it is again. What am I going to say this time?' Every time , it is a challenge, a task, an invitation to increase my own understanding by assigning words to some thing which is indescribable by nature and has the additional aspect of being something different every time it happens." (p. 1)

- From Kenny, C. (1982). The Mythic Artery: The Magic of Music Therapy. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Co.

Can any other music therapists relate?

Music therapy is difficult to define as both music and relationships are subjective and personal. What happens in the music therapy session depends the interaction of elements that make up the client, the therapist, and the music.

It is unique in that, in additional to the client and therapist, the music used within a session is a medium that influences the therapeutic process.

Upon the basis of the client and therapist relationship or therapeutic relationship, the music therapy process involves client associations with the music used in sessions, as well as, the clinical applications of the music for therapeutic change and growth.


... based on a therapeutic relationship. We depend on trust and building relationships with our clients, whether an individual or a group. Music engages a person very quickly because it taps into various parts of the brain involved in rhythm, sensory processing, memory, emotions, as well as speech and language. Thus, we can establish the relationship very quickly; the music we use is personalized. This also makes music therapy accessible for people of different ages and abilities. Most importantly, this experience is interactive – the client and therapist can participate together in singing, instrument playing, improvising music, song writing, moving to music, listening to music, as well as verbal processing.

While I was working at the hospital, there have been many instances where patients have requested that the music therapist follow them through their hospital journey. Starting from the ICU and through to the other neurorehabilitation units as well as other medical units, these sessions provide a form of groundedness, or an anchor, to a patient’s stay. Patients always express their appreciation of the therapeutic experience, and when we return and see a familiar face week after week, they remember how we, and the music, made them feel. Patients quickly develop a meaningful therapeutic relationship with us through the music-based counselling interventions and a lot of the time, that is what keeps them going.


... goal-oriented. It is geared towards change and growth within all domains of well-being. This involves the intentional use of music to, for example, improve fine and gross motor skills in rehabilitation (sometimes co-treating with physio- and occupational therapists), to orient and engage a person experiencing ICU delirium, or to aid in processing difficult emotions. We are always asking ourselves, what is the intention behind what we are offering?

And finally,


... a process. We assess, develop goals with our clients, and evaluate progression toward those goals overtime. Sometimes that happens within a single session. And other times, we follow clients for an extended period of time. We are informed by evidence-based research and theoretical approaches that allow us to provide the appropriate support and guidance for what a client might be experiencing. The right music at the right time has the most potential for healing.

There was a woman in the hospital who experienced a medication overdose. She was alert and awake when I saw her, and tolerated 60 minutes of music therapy that focused on psychosocial support. The first song “House of the Rising Sun” evoked an emotional response; she expressed that her best friend used to play this song and they would sing it together, however, she did not get to see him as often anymore and would like to change that. Having been in the ICU, she thought about her own life and the choices that she had made that got her to where she is today. Through counselling questions and therapeutic guidance, she aimed to make changes for the betterment of her life. At the end of the session, “Landslide” culminated her therapeutic experience.

So, I invite you to think about the kind of music you enjoy listening to, what are some words you would use to describe your music? Does it say anything about who you are? Does it make you think of something or an experience in particular?

Music means many things to people and it is our job as music therapists to tap into those connections and create opportunities for growth and change. The Music Therapy Experience can be:

  • Fun

  • Emotional

  • Unique

  • Hard work

  • Collaborative

  • A process

  • Healing

  • Motivating

I encourage you to see if music therapy might be a good fit for you!

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