Music Therapist Careers

Become a Music Therapist

Grand piano keyboard
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What is it like to be a music therapist? Would a career as a music therapist be a good career for you? An experienced music therapist, Mary Claire Holliday, offers her perspective on a career as a music therapist.

Ms. Holliday has practiced music therapy since around 1997. She is currently based in upstate New York at Questar III BOCES. She obtained her position working in the education system with students by proposing the role of the organization.

Holliday grew the role from a part-time position, to full-time, and now there is an additional part-time music therapist working with her as well. In addition to her clinical/educational role, Holliday chairs the Workforce Development and Retention Committee for the American Music Therapy Association.

Holliday answered several questions about her career to help readers learn more about careers in music therapy.

What Training, Education, and Certifications are Needed to Become a Music Therapist?

To be a practicing music therapist, one must currently have a bachelor's level degree or its equivalent in music therapy and be board certified by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. After receiving the board certification status, it must be maintained either by reevaluation with the board certification exam every five years or by completing 100 continuing music therapy education credits every five years.

Additionally, individual states may have additional requirements. There are masters level and doctoral level degrees in music therapy for those wishing to pursue higher education in music therapy.

Where, and With Whom, Do Music Therapists Work?

Clients with whom I work include students on the Autism spectrum, ADHD, cerebral palsy, visually impaired, hearing impaired, multiple handicaps, medically fragile, William's Syndrome, Angelman's syndrome, learning disabled, spina bifida, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

In addition to educational settings, other facilities in which a music therapist may work include but are not limited to hospitals, nursing homes, day hab programs, forensics, rehab programs, day centers, preschools, early intervention centers, hospice programs, psychiatric facilities, and private practice.

What Is a Typical Work Week Like for a Music Therapist?

I don't know that there is a typical work week for a music therapist -- it really depends on where you work and with whom you work. For me, I follow a school schedule (8 a.m. - 3 p.m.) with some after school students on the side. I travel to about ten sites per week, multiple ones on any given day, but many therapists stay within one facility. I have a caseload of just over 40 students, but some years I have gone over 50. Some therapists see more or less, again depending on where they work and with whom. I do a combination of push in and pull out sessions which can be a large group, small group, or individual sessions, and a few consultations. I also provide evaluations as needed. For me, prep work is done at home or when a client is absent.

Because I work for a company, I get paid a set salary regardless of whether the student is in school on the day of their session; however, when I have my private after school students, I only get paid if I actually work with them.

I maintain notes on my clients, and in some of the classrooms in which I work, there are specific notebooks that therapists write in to communicate with the family or specific data sheets on which information is written after each session. Although I have to fit most students in during the confines of a typical school day, I set my own schedule as to who I see when at the beginning of the school year.

What Do You Like Most About Being a Music Therapist?

I think what I enjoy most about being a music therapist is seeing the unique ways in which students respond to music. Students who are not making progress using other modes of therapy or instruction suddenly become interested in learning and alert and focused when the right music is presented and when they are allowed to respond at their own pace and level of ability.

Being given that freedom allows and encourages them to work harder, and sometimes I think they don't even necessarily realize that they are doing work -- they think that they are having fun.

I also love to watch the way rhythm helps to organize the student, in their movements, in their communication, so that they are able to be more purposeful in what they are doing.

What Are the Greatest Challenges of Working as a Music Therapist?

For me personally, the greatest challenge as a music therapist is persuading administrators about the need for music therapy services. So many times in this economic climate it comes down to finances when deciding what will most help a student succeed. Some of the administrators who help determine which services a student will receive have been exposed to music therapy and have seen its benefits first hand and are therefore more easily persuaded when an evaluation is presented (or even a request for a music therapy evaluation is made). Others seem less willing to listen and feel that simply playing background music will suffice. Even with a detailed presentation on the various accomplishments that have been made with structured music interventions, it isn't always easy to persuade a school district to spring for an additional service.

What Advice Would You Offer to Someone Who is Considering a Career in Music Therapy?

I always encourage interested parties to come observe a music therapist in action, and if possible more than one therapist working with different populations. It gives the person a chance to see first hand what music therapy can be like, and it lets the person know what kinds of job opportunities are available. If the person is definitely settled on becoming a music therapist, I encourage them to persevere and be persistent -- learn how to write job proposals, offer to do in services and maybe even a free trial of sessions to help build a client base.

How Much Does a Music Therapist Earn on Average?

According to the, the average salary for a music therapist ranges from about $25,000 annually to $52,000. The salary depends on years of experience, and the type of degree held by the music therapist. Degree options include a bachelor's of music therapy (BMTh/BMT), bachelor of science in music therapy (BS/BSc), bachelor of arts in music therapy (BA), or master of arts in music therapy (MA).