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What is Music Therapy? How does it work?

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Music Therapy has started to gain prominence due to increased media coverage in recent years. For instance, the BBC reported how Music Therapy help people recovering from brain injury and more recently how it has supported children with life-limiting conditions during the outbreak.

With all the recent media coverage, why not test how much you really know about Music Therapy? Let's try a game of True or False...

  1. Any musician can practice Music Therapy as long as they are compassionate and are willing to listen.

  2. Music Therapy is about playing lovely calm music to people who are unwell to make them feel happy.

  3. There are multiple approaches of Music Therapy practice.

  4. You can only engage in Music Therapy if you have a clinical diagnosis.

  5. Music has been proven to improve children's self-expression and communication.

Read for the answers? (Drumroll please.....)

1. FALSE - Any musician can practice Music Therapy as long as they are compassionate and are willing to listen.

In the UK, Music Therapists must complete a postgraduate degree in Music Therapy and have completed the required amount of clinical hours before qualifying. The training covers psychodynamic theories, systemic thinking and neurologic theories, as well as music improvisation techniques that are essential in Music Therapy practice. Music Therapists must also continue to meet the Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics, and the Standards of Proficiency set by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) post-qualification (1). All UK-based Music Therapists should have an HCPC registration number and can be searched on the HCPC registry under the umbrella term Arts Therapists by their last names (i.e. you can find my registration with my last name 'LUK' under Arts Therapists).

2. FALSE - Music Therapy is about playing lovely calm music to people who are unwell to make them feel happy.

This is one of the most common misconceptions people have about Music Therapy. Music Therapy is not a magic pill that 'makes' people happy. In fact, Music Therapy is about welcoming and expressing all emotions, including anger, sadness, grief, excitement, relief, sometimes even the sense of emptiness. With that said, Music Therapists often try to promote a positive therapeutic experience and our clients may feel a sense of accomplishment after expressing themselves through music.

The music improvised by the children I work with is often a representation of their life experience. Sometimes it's well-organised with lots of energy, but more often, it's chaotic, unstructured and unexpected because that's what life is all about. Music Therapy cannot 'make' your child happy, but it give them a space to learn how to manage changes and express themselves safely and effectively through music.

3. TRUE - There are multiple approaches of Music Therapy practices.

Just like any form of therapy and counselling, there is a wide range of Music Therapy approaches. In the UK, most therapists are trained in Psychodynamic Music Therapy with an emphasis on having clinical music improvisation with clients. Clinical improvisation has its root in Freud's theory of 'free association', which implies (in extremely simple terms) that if you ask someone to examine and communicate their thoughts freely, they will eventually uncover repressed memory or emotions (2). In this context, clinical music improvisation provides a non-verbal means for clients who are resistant to talking therapy and clients who have limited verbal skills (such as young children) to 'play' their mind. The music then became a projection of inner self that the client and the therapist can explore further verbally, if they wish.

There are other approaches of practicing Music Therapy, including Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT), Behavioural Music Therapy (BMT), Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) etc. The common denominator is that these approaches are evidence-driven and they all use music as a medium to support our clients' wellbeing. These approaches are not exclusive from each other. For instance, I was initially trained as a psychodynamic Music Therapist, but I feel it's important to incorporate humanistic ideas in my work. It helps me recognise children's capacity of discovering their potential. I'm also a Neurologic Music Therapist. NMT techniques support children to enhance and discover their developmental, speech and cognitive capability. These approaches all inform me of my work nowadays. Each Music Therapist will have different 'therapeutic profile'. It's important to speak to learn about a therapist's approach prior to starting therapy with them to ensure that their approach would be best suited for your child.

4. FALSE - You can only engage in Music Therapy if you have a clinical diagnosis.

While Music Therapy is most commonly known to be an effective support for children with a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and children with Emotional Behavioural Disorder (EBD), it can support children pre-diagnosis or without diagnosis. In fact, study shows that using Music Therapy as an early intervention can support communication between children and their parents (3). It is also important to remember that behavioural regression is common in children facing sudden changes and children who have had a traumatic experience in the past. While these children don't tend to have a clinical diagnosis of emotional disorder, they can significantly benefit from professional support for emotional outlet and finding socially appropriate ways to express themselves.

5. TRUE - Music has been proven to improve children's self-expression and communication.

A study from 2004 showed that active music making in Music Therapy sessions help children with behavioural and developmental disorder to focus and sustain attention (4). Another study in 1998 showed that Music Therapy helps children with emotional behavioural disorders to channel their difficult emotions to creating music (5). These studies coincide with my experience of conducting Music Therapy with children; while some children and teens do not like talking about their feelings, they are often highly motivated to explore these emotions through music.

If you feel your child is in need of emotional behavioural support, but can't imagine them walking in a counselling room and talking to a counsellor about their concerns for an hour each week, Music Therapy may be what you're looking for.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has made us rethink the way we deliver and receive services, and support our clients. What are the pros and cons of receiving online Music Therapy? We'll explore this further in our next blog post.


(1) British Association of Music Therapy (2017). 'Guide to Professional Practice'. What is a Music Therapist? Available at:

(2) Kim, J. (2016). 'Psychodynamic Music Therapy',, 16(2). Available at:

(3) Franco V. & Jimenez S. (2018). 'Music Therapy In Early Intervention-A Family Perspective', Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 5(4).

(4) Gold C., Vorecek M. & Wigram T (2004). 'Effects of music therapy for children and adolescents with psychopathology: a meta-analysis', Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45:6, pp 1054–1063.

(5) Montello L. & Coons E. (1998). 'Effects of Active Versus Passive Group Music Therapy on Preadolescents with Emotional, Learning, and Behavioral Disorders'. Journal of Music Therapy, 35(1), pp. 49–67.


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