How Important are Music Skills for the Music Therapist?

As an educator and clinical supervisor, the question regarding the importance of music skills on the part of music therapists continues to repeat itself. How important is it for the music therapist to have a high level of music skills? And, what does high level mean? And furthermore, are functional skills enough? And, what does functional mean? I have experienced a huge divide in how music therapists view these questions. This topic and these questions have nothing to do with clinical orientation or philosophical beliefs, and yet there is a huge discrepancy in how we (music therapy profession) view the importance of music skills on the part of the therapist. (Please note that I’m using the term music skills as opposed to musical skills; which is a completely different skill).

Because we as MTs are using music, and all of its dimensions, does that not also give us the clinical responsibility of understanding the language of music, theoretically and practically? How can we fully understand the clinical potential of music if we are limited in the area of musicianship? To that end, if musicianship is somewhat lacking, does that mean that sessions may be being built around the therapist’s musical strengths, weakness, and preferences? And, if so, whose needs are we meeting? Is the music client-centered or therapist-centered? (Aren’t there some ethical implications that need to be considered here?)

In pondering questions regarding therapists music skill level, I think about how I might feel if I were a client in talk therapy, and the therapist had a difficult time expressing him or herself in words, and because of this, he/she also had a hard time understanding my verbal and non-verbal expressions. How would that alter the therapy process? How would the therapeutic relationship unfold if I’m unable to trust that I’m being heard, understood and/or listened too? In addition, how would I feel if the therapist was building the sessions around his communicative strengths and weaknesses?  And finally, if this process is occurring, what’s going on with the therapist, emotionally? Is he/she feeling this pressure due to a lack of understand and expression? And if so, how does that play out in the therapy process?

Within the field of MT I can certainly see how there can be various clinical views, orientations, beliefs, “truths” and philosophies regarding music therapy, however, how is it possible to not see eye-to-eye on the importance of music skill level for MTs? Yes, I know that we have musical competencies that accredited universities and colleges abide by, however, is it really enough? The Board Certification Exam includes music theory questions; however, how do those questions evaluate music skills? Simply put, how important is it that music therapists can play and understand music? And, at what level????

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your reply!




About drjohnmtbc

John A. Carpente, PhD, MT-BC, LCAT, NRMT, Assistant Professor in Music and Music Therapy at Molloy College, is the Founder and Executive Dir

8 responses »

  1. Kris Grossi says:

    Would a plumber go to work without his toolbox? I would hope not. In order to serve his clientele efficiently he/she needs their toolbox. The various tools within his toolbox are used everyday in that profession. In comparison, music is our toolbox and the more we have in there gives us more options. Why limit yourself and more importantly, your client?

    I believe that it is absolutely imperative for MT’s to have a high level of proficiency in regards to music skills. As musicians we should constantly push ourselves to become better. Not only does this help beef up our “chops”, it also allows us to take what we are learning and think about it from a clinical standpoint.

    How would Johnny react to this? Does a glissando help add interest to this improvised melody? Would Sally be more inclined to a poppy rock progression? How can modulations help support and strengthen a continuous flow? etc…

    Think about it. The more “techniques”, “knowledge”, and “tools of trade” we have in our arsenal, the more we will be able to offer the client. Who knows what a E7#9b5 could do to a client. Maybe a walking rhythmic pattern with a bass line helps John Smith relax more than just a basic down up strum pattern. And perhaps, Junior just enjoys open position chords. Regardless, we won’t know unless we try different things and have the ability to give client these options.


  2. Brian Abrams says:

    If one adopts a relationship-based view of music therapy, then what is musical skill but one’s means of “being with” one’s clients, in intentional, therapeutic ways? How else will clients be afforded the highest quality opportunities for change (in accordance with their needs) unless the therapist is fully able to “be there” effectively, as expressed in their clinical musicianship? The more options I have for “being with” my clients responsively through my artistic sensibilities, the better I am at doing my job. This includes the “virtuoso” ability to listen to our clients’ music, with an arts-health “ear,” even when we ourselves as therapists are not making music at all. Thus, the greatest (i.e., most “effective”) music therapists are not necessarily virtuoso performers (in any conventional sense–even though conventional music skills may figure into things). As we all know, being a brilliant performer musically may have no bearing on one’s ability to be an effective clinician (not even when one takes 100 courses in psychology). Rather, MTs have the responsibility to strive to grow toward becoming virtuoso CLINICAL MUSICIANS–that unique and special domain of musicianship and expertise indigenous to music therapy.

  3. Tom says:

    I could not imagine that you could have had a break through with Mikey if you had not been able to explore with him the music that he loved (punk). Being skilled in a wide range of music let you find the music that Mikey enjoyed and let you get Mikey to open up with you. Without that skill you may have never been able to get Mikey to respond to you.

  4. Jill says:

    Great post John. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I am immersed in my Nordoff-Robbins training. As a music therapist, I think it’s so important to have wide palette of musical skills that are ready at your fingertips for whatever clinical situation is presented to you. I like how Brian put it: “Clinical Musicians.” Perhaps to be a clinical musician, you must understand who you are as a musician- what are your “musical strengths?” and what are your “musical needs?” I continue to strive to improve my musicianship with an understanding that there is no expiration date on learning and growing.

  5. Pete says:

    I think you always have to work on your ear and you always have to be curious. That may mean developing the ability to listen empathetically to unfamiliar music or to find new meaning in the familiar. Building up a repertoire of songs or “licks” from as many genres of music as possible can never hurt (punk, rock, country, folk, jazz, etc). Also, analyzing what, specifically, I like about a piece of music helps me to make the music I keep in “the toolbag” meaningful so that what I play has more of a potential of resonating with a client.
    On another note.. some music skills to aspire to,,,

  6. This is SUCH a timely post for me. I just finished the Neurologic Music Therapy credential (NMT) in Colorado last week. Although I believe strongly in the science and research that they have done, I had deep philosophical issues with their calling their techniques MUSIC therapy. My question to them was…is it music therapy if we are only using ONE component (RHYTHM) and ignoring all of the other components such as melody, form, timbre, dynamics, etc. And they continuously put down Nordoff-Robbins because it is not evidence-based. Although we have not yet fully studied the aesthetics of all that music has to offer, should we ignore our gut feeling and instinct? Should we give up our musicality in the sessions? I think not. The teachers had almost NO musicality, in my mind, and that really bothered me. This is also moving us away from client-centered MT and into a prescriptive approach.

    • drjohnmtbc says:

      Cindy, thanks for your very candid impressions of your NMT training.

      I’m surprised to hear that you found the teachers to be unmusical. It’s always been my impression (based upon my readings of Thaut) that the aesthetic integrity of the music was of utmost importance.

      You certainly have a great point that musical elements are inextricable from their contextual meaning as part of a synergistic whole.

      I also resonate with your point about evidence-based practice. A practice such as NRMT is not LESS evidence-based than NMT…it’s simply evidence-based in a different way. In NRMT, it’s about providing aesthetic structure as a the basis for opportunities to transcend the referring clinical conditions via active, intentional participation. Evidence is of the client working (“I Work”), versus the causal mechanism working (“It Works”). It is based not upon predictability, but about quality of opportunity (which remains valuable regardless of how the client ultimately utilizes the opportunity the work affords her/him). When the therapist raises the cymbal while the piano holds on a fermata at a half-cadence, it is not so the client can play at the “correct” time, but so she/he can be an intentional part of the music-making. If the client doesn’t play, the music moves right along, unconditionally–if the client does play, the music celebrates the completion of the artistic “meaning unit,” and may go on to repeat any number of times, in any number of different ways, beyond the client’s original constraints to expressivity. Still evidence, and still rigorous (just ask anyone who’s ever sat for hours “indexing” the clinical-musical process in NRMT!).

      Thanks again.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful response, John. You are SO right…since I haven’t had the luxury of videotaping sessions in the past 4 years, I neglected to remind Dr. Thaut that we videotape and analyze every session. I have decided that NMT will be one item in my toolbox. There IS a place for neurologic treatments that are prescriptive in which rhythm is of primary importance and aesthetics are secondary; there is also a place in music psycho-therapy where musicality and the relationship that develops is the utmost importance. I will have to figure out which approach is best based on my treatment plan / goals. Love your blog! I referred all the new NMT graduates to it, as we discussed this same topic amongst ourselves all week at the training!

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