Music Heals: A Deep Dive into the Inner-Workings of Music Therapy

Artwork by Ellie Bonifant

Artwork by Ellie Bonifant

by J. Faith Malicdem

People employ music for their benefit in a variety of ways. It can serve as a platform, a creative outlet, a coping mechanism, and a mode of communication. Alternatively, music as an avenue for therapy and wellness emerged in the late 18th century, appearing in medical dissertations and articles. The unsigned article in Columbian Magazine titled "Music Physically Considered" was the first recorded account of music being considered a healing practice. The early 1900s saw a growth in support of systematic musical therapy when upper academic institutions adopted organizational and educational training practices.

Today, various organizations are using music therapy as an active participant in the process of healing people of all ages who exhibit conditions such as Alzheimer’s, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and other special needs. Its interventions are effective in promoting wellness, managing stress, improving communication, and promoting physical rehabilitation, according to the American Music Therapy Association. Twenty-six states have one or more colleges that offer a degree in music therapy, further normalizing the practice and championing its effectiveness.


The Community Music Center of Boston (CMCB) offers music theory classes, instrumental lessons, and group courses alongside their music therapy program. They strive to “transform lives throughout Greater Boston by providing equitable access to excellent music education and arts experiences,” according to their website.

According to Music Therapy Director Chris Perry, “[The] program serves a diverse population, including both children and adults. [We] partner with both public and private schools, day programs that primarily serve adults with developmental disabilities, and also day programs that serve older adults who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia.”

Perry defines music therapy as “the use of music to address non-musical goals.” The creation of music is, in itself, accessible—anyone can sit themselves down with a pen and paper to jot down song lyrics and express themselves through song. Perry corroborates this, stating that “one of the most incredible things about music is how flexible and adaptable it is. It can address a number of different goal areas including cognitive goals, communication goals, behavioral goals, motor goals, emotional goals, and social goals.”

Perry offered to give me a tour of their campus in the South End and I was able to walk through the site, which exuded positivity from one hall to the next: Students of all ages roamed around. Youngins fiddled with each other’s fingers and happily hummed in unison while college students enveloped themselves in the rehearsal rooms. In rooms dedicated for specific instrumental sessions, I found a batch of adults forming a drum circle. 

Perry then led me into a music therapy space, containing a single piano and a chair for a music therapist. He explained with this set-up, the subject can hone in on their instrument while focusing on the music therapist’s instruction. However, a music therapy session differs from participant to participant. 


According to Perry, one of the great things about the flexibility of music is that it can exist in so many different settings. “But generally, there [are] a couple of core, different interventions that are used throughout a music therapy session,” he explains. “When you start a music therapy session, you typically start out with some sort of greeting, whether that’s through song or instrument playing,” said Perry, further expanding on how vocalization and movement is encouraged to varying extents depending on the population, but “most often, we [participants] are actively playing music.” 

Because music therapy is a profession that demands steep qualifications and requirements, those that are active in the field are well-equipped for the job. In preparation, people who want to go into the field must heed to the Certification Board for Music Therapy’s required qualifications. 

“Each music therapist either needs to go through an undergraduate or graduate training program and also engage in a clinical internship which ranges from 900-1200 hours,” Perry explained. “Students on track to becoming music therapists are also required to pass a board certification exam. It’s really great that folks in the field get a good education and are able to have that support, but in some ways, it makes access difficult for folks because there is a really high barrier and high bar for internships.”

Erin Haney, music therapy intern at CMCB, spoke on her experiences with the process of advancing in the field as a college student: “Throughout our coursework, we are able to work with several different populations at many different types of settings,” said Haney. Alongside dedicating 25 hours per week to CMCB, Haney juggles schoolwork and a part-time job. “Through this internship, I hope to be well prepared going into the field as a professional.”

For those who seek out music therapy for themselves or loved ones, there are a variety of possible benefits that a session could provide. In recounting their experiences with the CMCB program, a mother stated that her “daughter's weekly sessions with skilled music therapists have enabled her to develop a love of music, and a willingness to participate actively when music is being played. She continues that her daughter's love for music allows her to "interact with others in a positive joyful way," and that was catalyzed by her music therapy sessions. As a mother of a child with special needs, she would highly recommend music therapy programs such as CMCB's. 

According to Haney, the individuals who participate in music therapy are empowered by their ability to practice the talents they’ve developed in sessions, whether it be playing instruments or writing their own lyrics. 

Music therapy is continually growing into a normalized practice, both as a profession and as an avenue for healing. Haney says “there is always exciting new research being published which shows us new and effective ways we can utilize music to achieve specific outcomes for the clients. Music is transformative and can make such a difference in people’s lives, and I’m grateful to be a part of that.”  

The Community Music Center of Boston offers free consultations and assessments for anyone interested. They allow walk-ins at their South End location and encourage people to visit their website to learn more about music therapy.