What’s the Correct Definition of Music Therapy?

What's the Correct Definition of Music Therapy_.png

The music therapy world is a small one, but it’s growing in size. Based on stats recently provided by our certification board (and organized by one of my colleagues), our profession has almost tripled in size within the last 10 years. The infrastructure created to help support our profession is scurrying to keep up with our booming growth and at times it appears challenging to follow everything that is happening within music therapy.

Because our profession is smaller in size, we are all relatively aware of the moving parts within our music therapy world. Even if we aren’t active in our regional or national associations, or we don’t subscribe to the professional listserve, we are all tied to one another in some way. We all have at least one “mutual friend.” That’s how small our professional world has been and we are continuing to connect with one another together in support as victories arise and challenges are faced.

With this close-knit camaraderie, it is still surprising to me when feathers are ruffled. It is within the nature of the working world to have professional differences. We are all human and have different beliefs, thoughts, mindsets, and understandings of the world. Despite accredited trainings, education, and internships to help streamline our practice, we will all have difference experiences. Even with similar personality types, desires to help our clients, and professional intentions, we will never be exactly the same. In fact, it would be terrible if we were. We would be a very boring profession.

Even if we agree that we are different, in my experience many music therapists are still sometimes unwilling to work together or to uplift one another. Forgive me when I boldly ask, but what benefit do we have as a profession in working against each other? 

Years ago, I was made aware that my TEDx talk had offended another music therapist. In my efforts in attempting to briefly describe many facets of music therapy I had not included one small detail. Even after years since I initially wrote, memorized, and gave the TEDx talk, I had no idea what I had left out would be offensive to anyone. Even still, years after I was made aware, the encounter still resonates with me.

My initial reaction to this particular information at the time was shock, immediately followed by defensiveness. In my mind, I had created this particular speech in order to help our profession and propel advocacy forward for our field. I was offended and hurt that other music therapists did not see this and had actually found it harmful to their work.

But, being a therapist, I tried to step away, reflect, and determine why I was reacting as I was. From the other music therapist’s perspective, I could understand exactly why they had defended their work and asked for me to clarify their work in future advocacy measures.

I understand.

I get it.

I ask the same thing of other people every day when I encounter someone referring to something as music therapy when it’s not. have been that person asking for clarification. Despite being generally open and willing to educate and advocate for our work, the reality is that we are always on our advocacy defenses.

I recently sat through an intern’s “What is Music Therapy?” presentation given to colleagues and students at our facility. After the presentation, one of my colleagues asked, “Do you ever get tired of explaining to people what you do?” The intern answered with enthusiasm and passion, communicating joy for being able to help other people understand music therapy.

I sat there and reflected on this response, thinking of how many “elevator speeches” I had given just that week in addition to all of the decisions I make daily that ultimately affect music therapy advocacy. My initial emotion was fatigue. My second emotion was confusion.

How do you teach about a profession that is so varying from therapist to therapist? How do you decide which aspects of your work are the most important to explain? My colleagues who sat through the same intern presentation as they do every few months still said, “I learn something new about music therapy every presentation.” How can we accept and normalize that fact that everyone may have a slightly different definition of music therapy without needing to correct one another? 

I think all music therapists will agree that every day is a bit of a fight to prove ourselves. Some days present large and small victories, other days present utter defeats. How we support one another as a profession will ultimately determine our profession’s success.

I practice music therapy from an eclectic philosophy. This means that I find value in and apply all philosophies of music therapy, as well as the variety of specialities and expertise that one can acquire. This philosophy is one of the reasons that I love music therapy as a profession – depending on the situation, experience, and background of both the therapist and the client, a certain “type” of music therapy may be more beneficial and effective than another.

Some people would disagree with this statement and I’m certainly open to being challenged. What I think is more important is the willingness to have the discussion. Yes, we are naturally defensive in regards to our work and our music therapy backgrounds. I too watch a news video with my hands covering my eyes until we’ve reached the sigh of relief that the news anchors communicated a correct definition of music therapy, or sit on the edge of my seat when I’m being introduced waiting to hear whether I’ll be introduced correctly. We have become defensive throughout the history of our profession because there still lacks an understanding of what we do. We have been trained to correct or re-educate rather than hear what has been captured accurately and to find joy in this.

So rather than constantly look for what is “wrong” or “false” with how we’ve been represented, let’s instead look for the bigger picture. Let’s celebrate the steps we’ve made to move us forward so that we can re-learn how to advocate without defensiveness. When we see the bigger picture and communicate our work with pride, the general public may be more willing to listen.


*Note: This particular post took me 3 years to write; not because I think it’s a flawless post but because I think it’s a difficult topic to address. It took me much thought and reflection to capture how I feel and to communicate some kind of takeaway. I truly hope it gives other music therapy students and professionals some food for thought.

2 responses to “What’s the Correct Definition of Music Therapy?”

  1. Thank you. I am grateful for your willingness to address this issue within our profession. MT’s will benefit greatly from more of this kind of self-reflection.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: