What is Music Therapy?

Music Therapy is the clinical use of music in the accomplishment of therapeutic goals with service users of any age (early intervention to older adults).

Music Therapy may address cognitive, social, emotional and / or behavioural needs. Seeking to create or develop an alternative means of interaction is one of the primary functions in music therapy. It provides a new and different means of expression and communication.

This ability, for a person to make contact and be understood, has a profound value in satisfying emotional needs, and in building relationships (Wigram in Watson, 2007, p14).

The Music Therapist

In St. Joseph’s Foundation the Music Therapist is a trained and qualified specialist who understands the ways in which music has beneficial effects and is specialised in the use of techniques to achieve certain goals. The MA in Music Therapy at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick is the only Masters’ degree in Ireland leading to a professional qualification in Music Therapy.

In 54 countries of the world music therapy training courses have been training music therapists, and there are an estimated 12,000 practicing therapists all over the world.

What does a music therapist do?

Music therapists:

  • Assess individuals to establish their needs in consultation with members of the team working with an individual or group.
  • Plan and implement appropriate therapy programmes to address theses needs.
  • Document and evaluate programs to assess their ongoing effectiveness.


After assessment the music therapist selects and applies a range of techniques in order to achieve the program goals. Some examples of techniques adopted by music therapists to address the client’s needs include:

  • Improvisation :The use of musical improvisation with a specific therapeutic purpose in an environment facilitating response and interaction. A musical relationship is gradually built through shared repertoire and exchange of musical expressions.
  • Song writing:The process whereby a client can communicate and explore inner thoughts, feelings or externalize issues. Songs may also be written as a type of life review.
  • Singing:To vocalize words or sounds in musical tones. Songs may be used for memory recall and reminiscence.
  • Music facilitated discussion:The use of songs as a catalyst for discussion of issues that are therapeutically relevant to the client. This involves song listening, analyses of lyrics and their meaning, and to examine the relevance of the lyrics to the client or the clients’ life.
  • Educational/instructional songs:Concept comprehension songs are sung. Concepts may include, up/down, left/right, loud/soft, stop/go, colours, numbers etc.

The Music Therapy Process

Specific music therapy goals are determined by the MT through initial music therapy assessment and ongoing review of the client. In the case of special education, music therapy goals can be an integral component of progress toward attainment of educational goals as identified by the clients’ Individual Educational Plan (IEP) team and parents.

In the case of adults with additional needs, music therapy can support goals suggested by their Person Centred Pan (PCP). Music therapy can therefore contribute to the quality of life of people with additional needs and their families.

Here at St. Josephs Foundation service users attend music therapy through a referral system. Reasons for referral to music therapy include:

  • Difficulties in making and maintaining relationships or meaningful interaction.
  • Difficulties in relationships with others, such as repeated aggression or lack of self confidence.
  • Difficulties related to communication.
  • When the client is experiencing a period of difficult emotions (for example, are worried, upset or angry) and it is hard for these feelings to be communicated through usual ways of communicating such as talking or signing
  • Specific issue’s, such as anger or a response to a life event.
  • Difficulties related to sensory impairments.
  • Multiple losses (for example, the death of a parent and a subsequent house move).
  • Behaviour that challenges staff and services.

(Watson, 2007).


A range of empirical literature supports the effectiveness of music therapy in increasing the skills and abilities of people with special needs in the areas of

(1) social and emotional behaviour,
(2) motor skills,
(3) communication skills,
(4) language and vocal production, and
(5) pre-academic and academic skills.

The efficacy of these outcomes is enhanced by the power of music to arouse emotions that can be used to motivate and engage clients toward achievement of their therapeutic goals.

Music Therapy Further Reading

Berger, D. (2002). Music therapy, sensory integration and the autistic child. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.

Gold C., Wigram T & Elefant C (2006) Music therapy for autistic spectrum disorder (Cochrane Review), The Cochrane Library, Issue 2, 2006. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Davis, W., Gfellers, K., & Thaut, M. (1999). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice. McGraw-Hill College, U.S.A. Goodman, K.D. (2007). Music therapy groupwork with special needs children: the evolving process. Charles, C. Thomas Publisher Ltd, USA. Meadows, A. (2002). Approaches to music and movement for children with severe and profound multiple disabilities. Australian Journal of Music Therapy, 13, 17-27. Oldfield, A. (2006). Interactive music therapy – A positive approach: Music therapy at a child development centre. Jessica Kingsley Publisher, London.