Following a year with unprecedented clinical demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of career roles in health care are experiencing immense growth and present a strong career outlook moving forward. Health care career professionals in these positions play an important role in the care of patients across the country, who rely on them…
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How to Become a Music Therapist
Alternate Career Titles:
Board Certified Music Therapist
Music Therapist Job Description: Music Therapists help patients reach mental health goals through musical treatments.
Music Therapist Salary (Annual): $40,000
Music Therapist Salary Range: $25,000 to $75,000
How Long To Become a Music Therapist: 4 years
Music Therapist Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree in Music Therapy
Become a Music Therapist
A Music Therapist is a healthcare professional who works with a variety of patients to improve mental health outcomes through individualized, clinical and evidence-based treatment plans. These plans may include specific therapies such as listening to music, playing music or even creating music.
Patients who seek music therapy can be young or old and may have a range of conditions like Alzheimer’s, developmental delays, mental illness, chronic diseases, long-standing pain, etc. Often, music therapy, as well as other careers in arts in health, can be used to reduce stress, lessen muscle tension, lower blood pressure and even boost immunity! Alternative careers in arts in health include that of a Art Therapist, Medical Illustrator and Medical Photographer!
“Patients and clients may learn music skills, but Music Therapists are not just there to teach musical technique,” Christina Britton Conroy MA, CMT, LCAT, a Music Therapist practicing in New York City, shared. “Ultimately we are there to guide them into richer, fuller lives.”
Conroy explained that careers in music therapy are much more varied than one might assume. During her own career she recalls having worked not only with many diverse healthcare patient populations, but also with educational programs and social service venues.
Conroy is a classically trained singer and actor. She added “I’ve enjoyed all of my roles as a Music Therapist. The only times I’ve ever been unhappy were when facilities did not have sufficient space or time for me to run the programs I felt were necessary to help my clients and patients the most.”
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Education & Training
After obtaining a high school diploma, there are a few different pathways one can pursue to become a Music Therapist. Students can choose to enroll in an online or campus-based undergraduate program to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in music therapy. This degree includes coursework designed to teach students how to assess patient needs, develop treatment plans and evaluate progress. Alternatively, individuals can pursue this healthcare career after graduating with a degree from a related field such as psychology, music, or counseling. Degrees in psychology, music, social sciences, behavioral sciences, biology are most helpful.
After a Bachelor’s Degree is obtained, new graduates must complete an American Music Therapy Association approved training program and internship. Following this, they must register and pass the licensing exam administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists to gain their credential as a “Music Therapist-Board Certified” (MT-BC) .
Music Therapists may then decide to further their education by enrolling in a Master’s Degree in Music Therapy or even a Doctoral degree. These advanced degrees will expand upon clinical, research and academic ideas related to music therapy.
“When I became serious about therapy work, I auditioned and was accepted into NYU’s Music Therapy Master’s Degree program,” Conroy noted. “Working full-time and going to school part-time was very tough and very expensive. Completing the 2-year MA course work and writing my 120 page thesis took me over 3 years.”
Conroy added that upon completing her Master’s Degree, she sent all of her completed work to the American Music Therapy Association. The organization then granted her the credential of ‘Certified Music Therapist.’ Later on, the New York State Education Department created an advanced credential, and she received an additional credential as a ‘Licensed Creative Arts Therapist.’
Beyond the advanced educational degree pathways mentioned above, Music Therapists can also consider internship opportunities or enrolling in specialized online Continued Education Courses to further improve their marketability. Advanced degrees and specialized courses provide Music Therapists with the opportunity to add additional skill sets and increase their knowledge about the industry.
“Every clinician needs to decide what an advanced career looks like for them,” Conroy expressed. “For me, this was starting my own business called ‘Music Gives Life’.”
Through founding “Music Gives Life,” Conroy brought musical performing into the lives of senior citizens who thought their lives were over. During this time, she would offset costs and received tuition credits by supervising interns. While most Music Therapists spend the entire careers working with a single population, her career in healthcare has been unusual because she treats patients of all ages and diagnoses.
Experience & Skills
Conroy pointed out that most Music Therapists are already great musicians when they begin their music therapy training. She warned, however, that a knowledge of music is not all that is required in this career. Rather, individuals must be able to understand and use psychological principles to most effectively work with a variety of patient populations. Prior to practicing in the field, such professionals must also grasp the foundations of music and the principles of therapy, as well as understand human development and exceptionalism.
“Even though I had a Bachelor’s Degree in Music, I still felt I needed additional training in improvisation and scoring,” Conroy explained. “All healthcare professionals, including Music Therapists, need total commitment, passion, professional technique, unlimited patience, imagination, tenacity and a huge sense of humor to succeed.”
To use music as therapy, professionals must first-and-foremost remain passionate about the use of music as a form of expression. Then, to transform this passion into a career as an effective Music Therapist, individuals must become dedicated to helping others overcome mental health challenges by empowering themselves. Those considering this profession should therefore be kind, considerate and caring and open to the idea of using music to counsel patients while offering empathy, support and guidance.
To achieve successful outcomes, Music Therapists must also develop strong relationships with their patients. They need to be able to work with patients of all ages and abilities, as well as be adaptive and resourceful.
“Being super smart, funny and loving are also beneficial in this role,” Conroy exclaimed.
While the lifestyle of a Music Therapist largely depends on their employment setting and the types of patients they see, most of these professionals will work with multiple patients during a single day. Patients are seen on either an individual basis or in a group setting. The number of hours a Music Therapist works per day will reflect how many patients they are able to connect with. Most Music Therapists who are employed by a company or facility will work about 40 hours per week, which sometimes includes evening, night and weekend hours, to best accommodate patient schedules. Those who own and operate their own practices can have more flexibility.
“When I was working in schools, I had 30 minutes to get a class of eight autistic and developmentally delayed kids to relate through song, dance and playing instruments, before moving on to the next 30-minute class,” Conroy recalled. “Working in a nursing home was largely the same.”
Conversely, Conroy said that when she began leading senior centers she was allowed to create her own schedule. However, she found the limited time to engage with patients frustrating, as she explained that “constantly competing for space with social work and food services is what drove me to start my own business.”
Now is a great time to enter a career as a Music Therapist! This healthcare career is projected to grow at a rate of 7 percent over the next decade. This growth can largely be attributed to an increased emphasis on holistic treatments and therapies. Learn how holistic recreational therapy is also used to treat clients and patients!
Also, as mental health awareness expands, there is an increased demand for effective methods of intervention. Furthermore, the American Psychological Association (APA) has demonstrated through extensive research that music has the ability to positively stimulate the brain in a number of ways.
Music Therapists can find employment in a variety of workplace settings. However, they most often gain employment at hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, mental health facilities and more. Many of these professionals also work in private practices including the offices of Family Physicians.
“There are lots of job opportunities for Music Therapists, especially if they don’t care that the career title is specifically ‘Music Therapist,’” Conroy advised. “Opportunities are listed on the American Music Therapy Association, and on most career board sites.”
While the median annual salary of a Music Therapist rests around $40,000 per year, the salary is known to range from $25,000 to $75,000 annually. So, what influences the salary most? Factors like an employer’s geographic location and compensation rate, a professional’s experience level and number of hours working a week most affect this salary range.
“Salaries vary widely in a career as a Music Therapist,” Conroy explained. “Per diem work can pay much better than full-time, but there are usually no benefits associated.”
Unions, Groups and Associations
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) is an organization focused on progressive development of the therapeutic use of music in rehabilitation, special education and community settings. The AMTA is also committed to the advancement of education, training, professional standards, credentials and research in support of the music therapy profession.
- Gain musical experience
- Shadow a Music Therapist
- Research music therapy programs and their requirements
- Apply to an undergraduate degree program
- Graduate and complete an American Music Therapy Association approved training program and internship
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Christina Britton Conroy, M.A., C.M.T., L.C.M.T.
Practice: AHRC-NYC, private practice and my own nonprofit, Music Gives Life
Location: New York City, NY
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Visit lots of worksites and make sure you love music therapy and the work involved.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“They start classes without already having great music skills. Then, they fall behind their classmates. Music skills can be learned later, but they are very hard to learn.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Is there any other way I would enjoy making a living?”
Why did you choose to become a Music Therapist?
“One Christmas, 30 years ago, I was hired to play my Celtic harp and sing carols at a nursing home. I’d never done anything like this. Performing for a few drooling folks in wheelchairs was a new experience. Starting to sing a carol, watching them wake from their stupors and belt out the song changed my life.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
*Credentialing organization: The Certification Board for Music Therapists