Career spotlight: Music Therapist

Music Therapists combine compassion and creativity to help individuals overcome physical, emotional and social difficulties using music.
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What does a music therapist do?

Music therapists use elements of music to enhance the health and wellbeing of individuals throughout their lifespan. Based on research and assessment, music therapists form goals which relate to a client’s individual needs in the form of musical interventions and activities.

So for instance, if a music therapist is working in stroke rehabilitation, they may use music to help increase physical movement that’s been lost as a result of the stroke, or to improve a patient’s general sense of wellbeing and motivation to help them embark on the process of rehabilitation.

Central to the role of the music therapist is the therapeutic relationship they build with their clients/patients. The emphasis here is less on teaching people to sing or play an instrument, and more on using music-making and shared musical experience to help people communicate, express themselves and explore the world around them. These goals can be achieved through a wide range of musical styles and instruments, both traditional and digital.


The day-to-day

The day-to-day of a music therapist will vary greatly depending on their practice and whether they are working as an independent practitioner or for an organisation such as the NHS.

Freelance music therapists will typically work in a range of settings over the course of one week and may be required to work some evenings or weekends to meet their clients’ needs. Full-time music therapists working for a single organisation can usually expect to work a more conventional schedule of Monday to Friday, 9am - 5pm. Many music therapists also work part-time, combining music therapy with other roles such as teaching and performance.

The majority of a music therapist’s work will take place in music rooms where their clients are located (i.e. a specialised school or hospitals) and can be carried out one-to-one, in groups or a combination of both. Music therapists will spend a lot of time outside of these sessions preparing activities and getting to know their client’s favourite music, as well as reflecting on how previous sessions have gone.

Conor O’Brien, Studying for an MA in Music Therapy

“A lot of the work is a reflective practice. It’s not like you do the session and don't think about it again. You have to set aside more time to think about what happened, how you’d like to do it in the future, what was unexpected…”

– Conor O’Brien, Studying for an MA in Music Therapy

Music therapists work as part of a multidisciplinary team, often including occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, art therapists and play therapists to provide a holistic approach to a client’s care. Clients include people of all ages with conditions ranging from emotional or mental illness, learning and/or physical disabilities and developmental disorders to life-limiting conditions, neurological conditions or physical illnesses.

Music therapy is particularly helpful for individuals who struggle to express themselves verbally, so work in stroke rehabilitation or with people with autism spectrum disorder is common.

“One of the things we say about music therapy is that music reaches where words can’t. So sometimes when I’m trying to engage with an inpatient, I won’t bother with the words, I’ll introduce myself through sound instead.”

– Adam Kishtainy, Music Psychotherapist and Lecturer in Music Therapy at UWE

Why become a music therapist?

What music therapists love about their work

“I like to get to know people. I’m quite a social person and I’m interested in people, so I feel very privileged because when you create a safe therapeutic space, people open up and become vulnerable in some way. There’s a real beauty in someone sharing something they might have kept bottled up for fear of exposing themselves. Everyone’s got these different problems and different struggles, and to see people progress in that therapeutic space is a real privilege.”

Conor O’Brien, Studying for an MA in Music Therapy

Elise Livingston, Music Therapist and dBs Institute alumnus
“I love the way people are resilient and bounce back after tough situations and pain. Music has always helped me and it’s always been by my side when I’ve needed someone.  I wanted to give people the opportunity I had and give them the confidence to get up and be themselves.”

– Elise Livingston, Music Therapist and dBs Institute alumnus

“I love the potential for healing and the potential for change that we can bring through music. A lot of the time it doesn’t seem to be happening. There’s a lot of waiting, there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of confusion, a lot of ‘what on earth am I doing here?’, but then you get those moments where something wonderful happens and you see something change, you see something positive happen in their life. I suppose that’s the stuff I live for.”

– Adam Kishtainy, Music Psychotherapist and Lecturer in Music Therapy at UWE

Where a career as a music therapist can take you

Music therapists can choose to specialise in a particular clinical area of interest such as child development, palliative care or mental health, or may choose to work in a range of clinical areas depending on their interests.

With experience, music therapists can also progress into managerial roles where they manage a team of music therapists – or even a multidisciplinary team. There are also opportunities for music therapists to move into teaching or to further their academic and research interests through a PhD.

Other considerations

The work of a music therapist is diverse. Music therapists enjoy the flexibility to work in a range of settings; public, private and third sector, with people of all ages with a wide range of needs.

Whilst challenging at times, working as a music therapist is a hugely rewarding career that offers individuals with music skills and education the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on other people’s lives.

Music therapy is still an emerging discipline that has grown considerably over the past few decades. As a steadily expanding field, it offers a great deal of scope for professional growth, as well as to explore new applications and areas of research.

“To actually help someone transform their life through music is absolutely magical. As musicians, we know music is magic but to see the transformation literally has me beaming from ear to ear.”

– Elise Livingston, Music Therapist and dBs Institute alumnus

Who is this role suited to?

Music therapists tend to have distinct personalities, interests and skillsets. You may be cut out for this role if…


You are:

Warm – Music therapists need to elicit trust and give their clients the confidence to try new things and express themselves. As a result, friendliness and enthusiasm are key.

Compassionate – Working with people with special needs can be challenging at times, so music therapists must be patient, non-judgemental and compassionate.

Open-minded – The main aim of music therapy is to improve health and wellbeing outcomes, rather than create a polished musical product. It’s not necessary to be ‘musical’ to benefit from music therapy, therefore music therapists must be accepting of musical mistakes and imperfections

You like:

Helping people – At their core, music therapists are driven by a desire to combine their passions and professional interests to reach into and improve other people’s lives.

Learning – Music therapy is a career of constant education. It’s a requirement for all registered music therapists to keep their skills up to date through continuous research and professional development.

Practising musical instruments – Music therapists work with a range of different musical instruments (digital and traditional), so it helps if you enjoy constantly improving your playing skills and building your musical repertoire.

You're good at:

Improvising Improvisation is a core skill of music therapists, therefore it’s important to be open to and comfortable with the process of ‘just playing’ without placing too much emphasis on the end result.

Communicating – Music therapists need to be able to communicate effectively with a range of people and be receptive to the fact that not everyone communicates through words.

Thinking on your feet – Music therapists work with a number of clients with a range of different needs. No two sessions are the same so it helps if you can take your skills and adapt them to new situations.

How do you become a music therapist?

To become a music therapist it is necessary to complete a postgraduate education and training course in music therapy that is approved by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). A BA in music or psychology is not a prerequisite to being accepted on a music therapy masters programme, but you will need to prove you have the musical proficiency and academic skills needed to study at this level.

Training to become a music therapist is a big commitment, which requires a lot of motivation and dedication, so it’s important to take the time to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing this career. It’s highly recommended to do your research before jumping into anything. As a result, it’s common for people to enter into music therapy later in life.

Where do you go from here?

Tips from the top

– Conor O’Brien playing piano
“I think, read quite a bit before getting involved with the training. And try to speak to people who are music therapists or have gone through the training because it can be quite different from what you expect. You need to be quite willing to loosen your ideas of what music actually is.”

– Conor O’Brien, Studying for an MA in Music Therapy

“Keep believing in your dreams. I was always told that you can’t have a career in music but actually you can – just keep believing in it. Appreciate that all the life experiences, the good, the bad, the ugly are all leading in the right direction. Any hardships you’ve had just add to your character and you’ll be able to use this experience to help others that have been through similar things.”

– Elise Livingston, Music Therapist and dBs Institute alumnus

Building your skills and portfolio

If you are interested in music therapy, there are a number of online training courses you can do to explore the discipline as well as other related fields such as autism spectrum disorder, mindfulness and psychology. In addition to this, volunteering in a care/special needs setting or getting involved with community music is a great way to grow your experience and find out if music therapy is the field for you.

“On a Friday evening you could go to the pub, or, you could volunteer two hours to youth music and play some music with some kids for a couple of hours. The life choices that are going to build your CV are really important if you’re really serious about becoming a music therapist.”

– Elise Livingston, Music Therapist and dBs Institute alumnus
We tend to say that you need to have some kind of life experience that’s relevant to the people that we’re working with. So either you’ve had your own experience of mental health difficulties, either within your family or with people you know well, or you’ve done some care work in a hospital or you’ve helped support in a special school. Sometimes we say to people applying for our MA programme to go and get some work experience and come back in a couple of years.”

- Adam Kishtainy, Music Psychotherapist and Lecturer in Music Therapy at UWE

How can dBs help?

Our BA (Hons) Music Production & Sound Engineering, BA (Hons) Electronic Music Production and FdA Sound and Music Technology degrees offer a solid foundation on which to pursue a music therapy MA. In addition to this, at dBs Institute we also offer an Innovation in Sound MA, a core tenet of which is sonic altruism - or put simply - the notion that music can be used as a medium to help people. This can lead you down the road of music therapy, either as a researcher or - with further HCPC training - a practitioner.


If you’re not at the stage for university study, the Access to HE: Music Production diploma is a great way to gain the skills you need to progress onto undergraduate level study. This diploma is provided by our education partner, Access Creative College.

Useful Resources


How Music Helps in Music Therapy and Everyday Life by Gary Ansdell

Music Therapy by Rachel Darnley-Smith

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

The Handbook of Music Therapy by Leslie Bunt

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Music therapy: Understanding the Science of Sound by Lisabeth Fauble

Tales from the Music Therapy Room: Creative Connections by Claire Molyneux

The Psychology of Music – A Very Short Introduction by Elizabeth Hellmuth


The British Association for Music Therapy


Music therapy conversations

Articles :

A day in the life of a music therapist


Music Medicine: Sound At A Cellular Level | Dr Lee Bartel | TEDxCollingwood

This Is Your Brain on Music - Daniel Levitin

Why I want to change the world through music therapy |  Erin Seibert | TEDsUSFSP

“Music therapy as a career choice is quite a niche option, but within it, it’s a pretty big umbrella term for lots of different ways of working. But essentially, your role as a music therapist is to use music to create a space in which people you’re working with can achieve non-musical goals.”
– Conor O’Brien, Studying for an MA in Music Therapy
“It doesn’t matter how good a musician you are if your music doesn’t enable you to connect with somebody else, then that’s going to be a problem being a music therapist.”
– Adam Kishtainy, Music Psychotherapist and Lecturer in Music Therapy at UWE