What to Expect From a Music Therapy Session

A step-by-step guide of what your treatment will entail

When engaging in your first music therapy treatment, it is completely normal to be a little nervous. Despite the patient’s past experience with music and musical instruments, music therapy is typically very different from other forms of treatment. Although it is unlike other treatments , it should not be something to worry or be scared about.

Because many people with health conditions don’t usually turn to music therapy as their first treatment option, we will discuss what to expect when first going to a music therapist. While we may introduce some techniques that will be offered in your session, not everyone who partakes in music therapy uses the same techniques, as it depends on the condition of the client, age, environment, etc.

What is Music Therapy and Where Will it Take Place?

The definition of music therapy from the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish goals. The goals which wish to be accomplished in music therapy differ for each patient.

Sometimes music therapy sessions will be completed in a group setting. While individual goals are harder to focus on in a group setting, it is good practice for patients who need help improving their social interactions. Some may feel more comfortable when they take an individual/private session with a music therapist. Whichever setting one chooses - group or individual - benefits are still received.

woman (music therapist) playing drums in a circle of older people playing other instruments like drums and shakers
Group sessions where musical instruments are used can help engage patients. Image courtesy of Kellee Maize.

Another question that many have is where will it take place. Sometimes music therapy treatment will occur in a hospital setting. If the patient recently had surgery or was just diagnosed with a certain condition, a music therapist may come to help. Music therapists can help the patient relax, or help them find ways to cope with the big news they just received.

Music therapists can also treat patients in their private practice or a nursing home. For children, they may have the option to receive it through school. This can be compared to students who may leave class to receive speech therapy.

In severe medical conditions or when a patient is receiving end-of-life care, a music therapist may come to one’s home. Despite the setting or number of people in a session, a music therapist will help patients accomplish their goals and improve their quality of life.

What Will Music Therapy Entail?

Depending on the patient's age and health diagnoses, treatment will be different between patients. Most sessions begin by the music therapist engaging in conversation with the patient. Asking how their day is going, how they are feeling, and so on. This helps the patient ease into the session.

After talking to the patient, the music therapist may begin with a song to indicate that the treatment is starting. This is a popular technique in group sessions or people over the age of 60. Once the opening song is done, the music therapist may hand out some musical instruments. While instruments are not always used by patients, they may help the individual feel more engaged.

In sessions where people are focused on movement, the music therapist may encourage the patient(s) to stand up and dance, tap their toes, or clap their hands. Whether the session is focusing on movement, language, or behavior - music engages all parts of the brain. This means the patient may use several areas of the brain at once.

While music therapy is certainly centered around music, a lot can be discovered about a patient during a session. For example, talking to a patient before treatment can help give insight into how a patient is truly feeling. The music therapist is always assessing during treatment.

It is not uncommon for music therapy patients to learn different techniques during a session. For example, if a patient is experiencing a form of anxiety or is very stressed, the music therapist may teach them a breathing technique to practice while they play some music. Another thing that may be helpful is writing song lyrics or discussing prewritten lyrics. This could help a patient who is struggling to process or release emotions.

child in hospital bed playing guitar. woman sitting bedside and music therapy sitting at the bottom of the bed playing guitar too.
Music therapists also have the ability to help patients learn new skills when playing an instrument. Image courtesy of Children's Minnesota.

Benefits For Patients and Advancing in Music Therapy

Aside from learning techniques that can be used anywhere and at any time, patients find benefits in other ways too. For example, many patients find themselves with less anxiety, stress, and pain. Many individuals have an improved mood after a session, too. For older patients who use music therapy to help aid in memory or speech loss, patients may be able to recall long lost memories or recite phrases.

The last question music therapy patients often ask is how long the treatment be used for. This question, like the others, depends on a patient’s condition. Music therapy treatment may be used on a routine basis or may be used  when needed.

For younger patients, music therapy may be used routinely until no more advancements are seen. Older individuals who are struggling to enjoy life may use music therapy until they pass. Since this is offered to individuals of any age and treatment is easily accessible, the duration of a patient’s use of music therapy is entirely up to them.

music therapist playing guitar and signing to a baby in the NICU
Music therapists can start in the NICU and continue till in-home end-of-life care. Image courtesy of PBS.

We hope this general overview of what happens during a music therapy session helps relieve any worries or anxious thoughts. It’s important to remember that music therapy treatment is used to improve the quality of life for individuals. Therefore, if you feel uncomfortable during a session - let your therapist know so they can help find the best techniques that will put you more at ease. If you are interested in trying music therapy or want to learn more about it, check out Incadence.

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 17, 2021

Lydia Bernardo
Lydia enjoys playing piano and spending time outside.
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