April 26, 2012
Music Therapy Vs. Music Education: what’s the difference?

Many people have a hard time understanding the difference between music therapy and music education.  Many music therapists integrate adaptive music lessons into therapy, but the goals of a music therapist and a music educator are very, very different.

Music therapy and music education may look similar to an outsider because both include active involvement in music-making.

Music educators teach about music - style, technique, repertoire.  The focus is on the student developing and refining musical skills, usually with the goal of performing music individually or as part of a group.  Music educators generally work with high/normally functioning individuals according to established pedagogy principles and methods.  One of the important aspects of music education is that the materials learned are meant to be applied only in musical performance.  There is also a desire to reach a level of perfection or expertise - successful music students learn the right notes and rhythms, and execute the music with proper technique and emotional expression.

Music therapists use active musical experiences to teach new skills that generalize outside of the music setting.  Music therapists accept the client’s musical abilities as they are, and don’t often expect their clients to perform music perfectly.  The relationship between the therapist and the client are integral to successful therapy in a way that a relationship with a music teacher is not.

Music therapists work to improve many domains, including cognitive, communication, academic, motor, emotional, organizational, and social skills.

I work with a young man who lives in a residential facility under 24 hour supervision, and attends school during the day.  I work with him in the evenings in his apartment.  While part of our interaction requires that I, in some sense, provide “music lessons” on the piano, autoharp, and the metallophone, this is not the purpose of our time together.

Because he is intellectually disabled, tasks that appropriately challenge his cognitive skills offer him a chance to grow.  This young man does not read and he is nonverbal (= does not speak).  Learning the harmonic progression to a familiar song, such as itsy bitsy spider, and then memorizing these chord progressions through repetitive practice gives him an opportunity for cognitive growth.  Learning to memorize songs may improve his ability to memorize other information.

I work quite a lot trying to increase his vocabulary and promote use of speech to express himself.  He has learned to say the word “pick” to request to play the autoharp.  He has learned to answer my simple questions, such as, “which song do you want to play?” or “which color pick do you want?”  These may seem like small things, but it is very important for someone who barely speaks at all to improve their ability to tell others what they want or need.  It can be difficult to generalize improvements made in therapy, but for example this young man has dinner after our sessions, and if he is more talkative because of the pleasure and encouragement he gets in our sessions, he is more likely to let the staff know that he would like a second piece of bread, or that perhaps he doesn’t like something being served.  Enabling this kind of self expression can greatly improve quality of life - for the client AND for his family and staff.

A music teacher might teach him to play autoharp, but a music therapist makes adaptations in the song to encourage, for example, communication.  I do this with this young man by singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your ____” and he fills in the last word.  This is a fun way for him to practice saying the names of body parts, something that will come in handy if he needs to tell the nurse what hurts.

I don’t work on academic skills with this client, because I have other things to focus on (social, communication, and cognitive skills predominate for this particular client).

This client has great coordination, fine and gross motor skills so when I pay attention to something like this it is to get him doing something complicated that even a “normal kid” might have difficulty with - he stomps his feet in time, while playing a piano accompaniment to “Happy and you know it.”  A music educator would likely be satisfied with simply playing the music accurately.  A music therapist finds a way to make the music continually move the client to a state of higher functioning.

One of the other important results from the therapy sessions with this client is the opportunity for social growth.  First, my autistic client and I developed a relationship in which he could trust me and he understands that I am in the apartment for his benefit. I am his friend, I am on his side, and we spend enjoyable time together creating music.  My relationship with him provides a model for healthy, functional relationships.  Although we do not speak extensively to each other, we have a system of give and take within the music environment that can ideally help my client to form and maintain relationships with others.

The therapeutic relationship acts as a foundation on which my client has been able to strengthen his relationships with his staff and roommates.  Sessions take place in the common area, and roommates and staff often relax on couches to listen to the music. They dance, clap, sing along, smile, and laugh.  Initially, this was distracting and disturbing to my client but after several weeks he seemed to accept the praise and participation.  My client’s roommates are also on the autism spectrum and this impacts their ability to socialize together.

My hope is that roommates and staff will have an increased appreciation and respect for my client, resulting in a more pleasant home environment.  These residents may not sit and have conversations with each other, but they can get to know each other and enjoy each other’s company while dancing and singing together.  This incidentally also addresses the need for residents of these types of facilities to develop leisure skills.  You and I can get on tumblr, or go out and play golf, or choose to sign up for a class on underwater basket weaving.  We all need to have an outlet for relaxation and fun during our off hours, other than watching TV or looking at old magazines.

It goes without saying that a music educator would not be concerned or focused on these non-musical results.  Ultimately, this is the difference between music education and music therapy.

Music education is about learning and appreciating music.

Music therapy is about everything else.

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  11. simplesongbird reblogged this from effyeahmusictherapy and added:
    Very good description of difference between music therapy and music education.
  12. ecbananadon reblogged this from one-legged-piano and added:
  13. amys-alpaca-farm answered: well written. I was a music ed major, but I am possibly switching to music therapy.
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  17. effyeahmusictherapy reblogged this from one-legged-piano and added:
    Of course, if you’re following this blog you likely already know this. It’s a great resource for anyone who doesn’t,...
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