Music Therapy: Myths and Misconceptions by Meghan Hinman M.A., MT-BC, LCAT, Music Psychotherapist

By December 2, 2010Blog

My name is Meghan Hinman, and I am a music psychotherapist. I’m very excited to be joining the Brooklyn Letters team and to be contributing my first blog entry. Music therapy is widely misunderstood, and I thought the best way to start writing about it here would be to address some of the typical questions and misconceptions about my field that tend to come up.

For most people, the idea of music being therapeutic seems pretty logical. But did you know that music therapists are highly educated professionals with specialized, standardized training? Music therapists in New York state are licensed psychotherapists (meaning you can go see one, just as you might go see a psychologist for private psychotherapy, and your insurance company might pay for it). The potential benefits of this modality are much greater than most people realize.

Misconception #1: A music therapist is a person who shows up with an iPod and tells you what songs you should listen to.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth! Music therapists are musicians (required to be proficient on piano, guitar, and voice, plus music theory, sight-singing, conducting…) who usually utilize live, active music making with their clients. When recorded music is used (which isn’t typical), a music therapy session is still grounded in the interaction between therapist and client, and encapsulates much more than just listening to songs.

Misconception #2: You have to be a musician to benefit from music therapy.
Music therapy is not about performing or having a certain level of musicianship skills– it is simply about being human. In music psychotherapy sessions, there is often a focus on talk therapy or therapeutic play and sometimes very little actual music is used.

Misconception #3: Music therapy can be facilitated by anyone.
It’s true that everyone is capable of using music in a therapeutic way, but music therapy is a career field that has standardized training, just like medicine, law, social work, or any other professional career. A music therapist is someone who has earned a four-year bachelors degree or two-year masters degree (or both!) from a music therapy university program; there are more than 70 schools around the United States with such programs. There are other practitioners who have been trained in using music to help people (music practitioners, harp therapists, music thanatologists), and they can do wonderful things with music, but only music therapy requires university-level training that includes psychology, human development, and the therapeutic use of music. In New York state, the LCAT (licensed creative arts therapist) license protects consumers by guaranteeing that music therapy licensees are highly trained and competent to practice psychotherapy.

Misconception #4:
Music therapy is a new thing.
The idea of music as a tool for healing is as old as music itself– however, music therapy as a modern career field actually began after the second World War, serving veterans for whom talk therapy and other forms of rehabilitation just weren’t enough. The first music therapy university training program was founded in the midwest in the 1940’s, and the first national governing body for music therapists was founded in 1950.

Misconception #5
: Music therapy is fun, but not useful for addressing serious issues.
Sometimes it’s true that participating in music therapy can be fun– but the word “fun” is somewhat misleading. The inherent qualities of music, including its structure, predictability, familiarity, the way we feel it in our bodies, and its potential for voicing a range of emotions, are what helps to make “serious issues” easier to tackle through and with the music than they might be otherwise. That’s why a child who has never been able to say “I’m sad that my parents got divorced” can sing those same words with the support of the music and music therapist. It’s why a teenager who has refused to talk to any therapist before is suddenly opening up around discussions of her favorite music. And it’s why an adult who complains, “I can’t get out of my head” chooses a music psychotherapist to help him investigate his feelings of depression and anxiety.

Misconception #6: Music therapy is only for children.
Music therapy is a wonderful intervention for children, as it easily works hand in hand with play therapy. Play and creativity come naturally to many children, and they lack the inhibitions that adults tend to bring to the table when it comes to the arts. Most children don’t worry about whether they are singing or playing an instrument “right,” they’re just thrilled to be engaging in the process! But music reaches adults too, and powerfully so– just in different ways. Think of how Beethoven, Bernstein, and the Beatles have moved adults and changed the world with their music. Why should such a powerful tool be reserved only for children? Music engages the emotional centers of the brain– the ones that are hard to access through cognitive processes such as talking and analyzing– and this makes it an ideal modality for adults and families, in addition to children, when a psychotherapy intervention is needed. What the actual therapy process looks and feels like in session is very different for children than it is for adults, just like in any psychotherapy modality.

Misconception #7: Music therapy is a new-age therapy.
There are music therapists who would consider themselves part of the new-age movement, but music therapy is a broad field with great variation among its professionals. There are music therapists focused on the neurological and rehabilitative applications of music therapy, on school-based and special education applications, on recreational and activity-therapy related applications, on behavior modification and positive reinforcement applications, and on psychodynamic and emotional applications of music therapy.

Misconception #8: Music therapists are not “real” therapists.
Music therapists are recognized members of interdisciplinary treatment teams in schools and many types of facilities throughout the country and the world. In New York, they are also qualified with the LCAT license to provide private psychotherapy services. If you’re curious, pursue treatment– or just a process of self-discovery– with me or another music psychotherapist. You’ll learn how “real” a therapeutic tool music can be, and the unique therapeutic expertise that music therapists have to offer.

Meghan is a licensed creative arts therapist and a board-certified music therapist with over ten years of experience working with babies, children, adolescents and adults. At her private practice in Brooklyn, she incorporates Depth Psychology, Vocal Psychotherapy and In-Depth Music Therapy to work with children and adults struggling with loss in their lives and with those who are looking for a creative way to understand themselves. Her style of therapy is client-led, and focuses on self-expression through music and/or the creative process. She can be reached at: meghan@brooklynlearning.com or by phone at 646-450-1644. www.brooklynlearning.com