Music therapists are both musicians and psychological therapists. They are highly trained allied health professionals who use music to provide therapy interventions to help improve their clients’ mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
In this article we’ll look at the sort of work you could do as a music therapist, where you might work, the skills you need and how you can get into music therapy as a career.
Cathy, who works as a music therapist for a charity, was kind enough to tell us a little about her role and career journey, and provides some helpful career tips…
What does music therapy involve?
As a music therapist you could work with people of all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. Your clients may have a range of disabilities, difficulties or diagnoses, such as neurodegenerative conditions, brain injuries, neurodivergence, mental illnesses, learning disabilities or social, emotional or behavioural problems.
You could find yourself helping an older person with dementia feel valued, supporting a child with autism to communicate when their emotions are too difficult to express verbally or helping someone with extreme anxiety to relax.
Even though music therapists don’t teach their clients to play instruments or sing, and clients don’t need to be ‘musical’, music therapy can bring about all sorts of positive change, such as improved social interaction, communication and self-awareness.
Your actual role will vary depending on the needs of your clients and the context in which you work. When you first meet a client, you may establish whether music therapy is appropriate and, in an initial assessment, find out how they present themselves musically.
In order to provide a joined-up approach to their care, you will often agree objectives in partnership with the client’s family/carers, teachers, social workers and/or healthcare providers, such as speech and language therapists, doctors and psychologists.
Music therapy sessions often take place in well-equipped music rooms where clients have access to a range of instruments. In medical settings, equipment may be taken to clients on trolleys.
You will plan and facilitate individual and/or group interventions, which might include sessions where your clients listen to music, have a go at playing different instruments or sing. Encouraging your clients to express themselves musically and responding with improvisation, are important aspects of the work.
At the end of each session you will review and assess your clients’ progress. You have to write up case notes and reports, possibly making recommendations for other treatment or referring your clients to other agencies or professionals.
The work also involves attending planning and review meetings with others involved in your clients’ treatment, and speaking with – and supporting – clients’ families/carers. In certain settings you may work with support staff who help you plan and run music therapy activities.
Where could I work as a music therapist?
A career in music therapy can offer you the chance to work in a wide range of settings including in hospitals, care homes, rehabilitation centres, prisons, pupil referral units, special and mainstream schools, day centres and hospices, as well as in specialist music therapy centres.
Employers of music therapists include NHS hospitals, special schools, hospices, local authority social services and specialist music therapy services/centres, which may be run by charities.
Cathy’s Top Tip: “When you start music therapy training, don’t worry if you don’t know where you want to work once qualified. Course placements will give you the opportunity to try different settings and see what might suit you.”
As full-time, permanent opportunities are limited, many music therapists combine different contracts. Some are self-employed or undertake both employed and freelance work. Others work as music therapists alongside teaching music or a career in performance.
We asked Cathy where she has worked and why. “I found all my course placements interesting, but my final one in the NHS felt perfect for me and I was lucky enough to be offered a job there once I qualified! I spent the next six years working in a large children’s hospital, developing my skills and thinking creatively about how music therapy could work in lots of different ways in that environment. With all this experience I joined a new charity called George's Rockstars, which was set up to bring music therapy to children in smaller, local hospitals. The charity has grown and I now lead a team of therapists delivering music therapy in four hospitals.”
Would I suit a career in music therapy?
Along with a high level of musical ability you need a range of other skills and aptitudes.
You must have plenty of imagination and creativity, and be able to think on your feet so that you can respond to your clients’ needs.
In order to develop good working relationships with your clients, you must be non-judgemental, patient and empathetic, and possess excellent communication, observational and listening skills. At the same time, you can’t get too emotionally involved so you need resilience and to be prepared to undertake therapy sessions of your own.
As well as being able to work alone, you also need to be able to collaborate with others. It’s important to be able to keep clear records, and have time management and organisational skills.
How do I get into music therapy?
To work as a music therapist you must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and work within the HCPC’s standards of conduct, performance and ethics. Registration involves gaining an HCPC-approved master’s degree. Full-time courses usually take two years and part-time programmes at least three. You can search for approved programmes through the HCPC website.
Cathy’s Top Tip: “There are relatively few music therapy programmes and all are quite different both in course structure and focus, so it’s worth doing thorough research to find one with an approach that will suit you.”
Check the entry requirements for music therapy courses with individual institutions as they differ. The application process usually includes an audition and interview. As a guide you need:
- to meet the required academic requirements – although many applicants are music graduates, other degree subjects or professional qualifications (e.g. in teaching, social work or psychology) are acceptable
- a high standard in musical performance
- to demonstrate the right personal qualities
- to have significant relevant experience – paid or voluntary – working with adults and/or children with additional needs. This could be in a health, education or social care context. You could also think about spending some time volunteering with a local music therapy service or through Music in Hospitals & Care or Music as Therapy International
Cathy’s Top Tip: “Music therapists come from all different types of musical backgrounds, so don’t be put off if you’re not a classical musician or if you haven’t done grade exams. Admissions tutors are more interested in your creativity and how you interact through music rather than whether you can play note perfect Bach!”
In addition to course fees and living expenses, while you’re studying you may have to pay for personal therapy sessions, insurance, Disclosure and Barring Service checks and travel to placements.
The British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT) offers small grants and can give you advice about other sources of funding. It’s also worth asking course providers if they are aware of any bursaries or grants available. Funds are often small and there are usually strict eligibility criteria.
Although opportunities are limited, in England it’s possible to train through a degree apprenticeship for arts therapists. Find out more about apprenticeships in general and search for any opportunities through the apprenticeships website or ask potential employers about this route.
Once qualified, to retain your HCPC registration you must keep up to date with new clinical developments and research through continuing professional development. Short courses and other training events are run for members of BAMT and by training providers, such as Nordoff & Robbins.
So how did Cathy get into music therapy? “Music has always been a big part of my life. After taking a degree in music I ran community and school music projects, and loved seeing how much people got out of participating. This made me wonder how music could be used to help people facing challenging circumstances and led to me finding out about music therapy. Going back to uni full time was daunting, but because everyone needs relevant experience to get on the course, we were all in the same boat and supported each other.”
What opportunities are there to progress in music therapy?
Once you are qualified as a music therapist, you could set yourself up in private practice. You could also choose to specialise in a particular area of work, such as mental health, or working with a particular client group. Those who are employed may be able to progress to more responsible management roles within a music therapy team.
Some music therapists go on to work in research or teach in higher education.
Cathy’s Top Tip: “Qualified music therapists can choose to work in just one setting, but lots like to keep their work varied, so split their week across different jobs. Even if you work in just one place, every day is different, so it’s always exciting!”
How can I find out more about careers in music therapy?
You can learn more about music therapy through BAMT. Various national careers sites have profiles on music therapists – see Prospects, NHS Health Careers, National Careers Service, My World of Work and Careers Wales. You can also find information through bodies such as the ISM (Independent Society of Musicians).
Top Tip: As training in music therapy is a big commitment, certain providers offer introductory courses. Examples include a one-day introduction to music therapy course and a five-day summer school at the University of Roehampton, and a two-day introduction to music therapy programme at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
As we’ve seen in this article, working in music therapy is a challenging area of work, but for the right person, like Cathy, it can provide an enormously satisfying career where you can make a big difference to people’s lives. To see Cathy at work, have a look at George's Rockstars charity video.
Debbie Steel, June 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.