What is music therapy? Approaches and benefits

Dealing with strong emotions is not a simple task, and therapy often helps people tackle complex issues and emotional concerns. When a client can’t find the words to describe what they are feeling, music therapy becomes an especially powerful mode of therapy.  

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses a wide range of music experiences to meet the specific goals of clients with varying needs. Whether used in clinical settings, educational institutions, or community programs, music therapy offers a versatile and effective tool for promoting health and enhancing quality of life.  

The American Music Therapy Association, a non-profit organization with the mission of advancing awareness of the benefits of music therapy and increasing access to music therapy services, describes music therapy as a service in which "music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals." Qualified music therapists create intervention plans for clients that can include creating, singing, moving to, or listening to music to improve mental and physical health outcomes.

Exploring the four approaches to music therapy

There are four main approaches to music therapy: receptive, re-creational, compositional, and improvisational. Each method focuses on a different way the client can get involved. Don’t be fooled, these four categories don’t account for all the possible techniques and modalities used in music therapy – but we will get to that later!  

Receptive music therapy generally describes the therapist playing music for a client to listen to, or “receive.” This might involve the client responding through words, their own compositions, or dance. This type of music therapy may also be used to lift the spirits of patients in hospitals, for example.  

In a re-creational approach, the client will recreate the music played by the therapist. The client can sing the lyrics or recreate the instrumentals of a song, whatever best meets their needs.  

The compositional approach is similar to how it sounds. The therapist and client work together to compose a piece of music. This composition can be on an instrument, multiple instruments, vocally, etc. This approach helps get clients involved in expressing their emotions through music.  

Lastly, the improvisational approach involves spontaneous song creation. The music therapist interprets their client’s mood based on the sounds and lyrics of their compositions. This method asks the client to make choices, which makes it ideal for a client who struggles with confidence or self-expression.  

How music therapists select an approach

Every music therapist will mix these methods or use other therapeutic tools as they see fit, so it would be difficult to answer questions like “What is the most common method?” This is one of the biggest benefits of music therapy: the therapist can assess their client’s needs, develop a strategy, and implement unique therapeutic methods customized to the client. 

As with music itself, rigidity won’t always work in music therapy. Music therapy allows the shifts and changes of music to help get people through the ups and downs of life.

April 19, 2024
Emma Snyder-Lovera, '26