• Julie Martin

"...so, you lay people out on a couch and play music for them?"

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

That question, the most memorable one someone has asked about what is Music Therapy, came early in my career and has stuck with me ever since. It came in response to the first question, "Music Therapy? What is that?" and my answer. I had probably given the formal definition of music therapy according to the American Music Therapy Association. That definition is, "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."

"So, you lay people out on a couch and play music for them?" Have I had a patient lie back, relax, and listen to music? Sure. That is what I might do, but what IS Music Therapy?

For the sake of your time, let's imagine you and I meet on an elevator in a dementia care facility, and I am wearing a badge that says, "Music Therapist." You love music, you know how your favorite music makes you feel good or says perfectly what you want to express. You know how your kids respond to music. You may have heard of the "Mozart Effect" or even have said, "Music is my therapy. I couldn't live without it."

But, a person called a "Music Therapist"?


You're curious, and you ask, "What is Music Therapy?"

Remember, we are on an elevator, so my time to respond is short, and what if you have another question? Here's what I say, "Let me give you a comparison: music educators teach music; music entertainers perform music; music therapists APPLY music." The wheels in your mind start moving, and indeed, you ask another question. Remember, we are in an assisted living facility. You are going to see your grandmother who has dementia, so you ask. "I've seen that video of the man with Alzheimer's who wakes up when he hears his favorite music. Is that what you do?"

Great question! The answer is "Yes...And." Yes, I use music to "wake up" a person, and then I continue to use it for other reasons.

There is always a purpose in music therapy for activating or waking up someone's brain. The brain runs the body and is the source of thoughts, emotions, and awareness of spirit. When music, particularly the music preferred by the client, is applied to the brain in a way backed by research, experience, and sometimes intuition in the moment, changes in physical function or sensation, thinking patterns, emotional states, and spiritual connection can occur. Some of the changes are immediate and easy to see, such as in the case of Henry (the "man with Alzheimers" in the video) becoming animated when his music was played and answering questions. Some changes are incremental such as a child with autism needing 6 months to be able to say 2 words to tell his mother what he wants. The Board-Certified Music Therapist's work is to apply music to affect changes that are in the direction of a client's or patient's goals and to do so within a therapeutic relationship.

You have had here the chance to read this expanded answer, but in the story, as we get off the elevator at your grandmother's residence, I would add, "Music Therapy is using music for non-musical goals."

I then notice that your visitor's badge for the memory care unit has your grandmother's room number written on it. I recognize it as the room number of a resident on my case load. She is someone that I see for comfort and to ease or prevent afternoon agitation called "sundowning." Since you are here, I ask if you would like me to see her during your visit. You agree, and I ask, "What's your greatest hope for your time with her today?"

"It's been almost a year since she said my name. I just keep wishing she would remember me."

"What is your favorite musical memory of your grandmother?" I ask. "We'll start with one of those songs."

Schedule a Music Therapy appointment or a free consultation: www.pensacolamusictherapy.com/contact

Learn how caregivers of family members living with Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias can use music themselves for caregiving:


Meet Henry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hlm0Qd4mP-I&feature=emb_logo

Meet the Rocketeer and the Rockette: https://www.floridahospices.org/2013/01/music-comforts-and-connects-couple/

American Music Therapy Association: www.musictherapy.org

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