The idea that music embodies healing powers goes back at least to the days of ancient Greece, but only recently has music therapy gained recognition as an effective way to treat the ill, the elderly and the physically and emotionally disabled.
"A lot of healthcare facilities that wouldn't have considered hiring a music therapist 10 years ago would consider doing so now," says Ann Dinsmore, music therapist at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown, a long-term care facility in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. "We've gone back to treating people in a more holistic way."
Research has shown how music therapy can improve the conditions of premature babies, autistic children and Alzheimer's patients, increasing awareness of the specialty, says Andrea Farbman, PhD, executive director of the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).
Music therapists work in hospitals, long-term-care facilities, schools, hospices, psychiatric facilities, wellness centers and prisons. They employ a variety of techniques to assist patients with physical rehabilitation, memory recall, relaxation, pain management, learning and social skills. For these reasons, music therapists must be confident in their work, self-motivated and at ease with the ill, disabled and dying.
"Music is such a powerful medium that just experiencing music, playing music and participating with music can be therapeutic," Farbman says. "It's not the musical goal that's first and foremost; it's using the qualities of music to have a profound impact on people dealing with illness and disabilities."
Becoming a certified music therapist requires rigorous training. About 70 colleges and universities offer AMTA-approved bachelor's and master's degree programs that require students to demonstrate professional competence in both music and therapy. Students must also complete a six-month internship and then pass the Certification Board for Music Therapists certification exam. They can also specialize in a specific patient population, such as the elderly or children with speech impairments.
Music therapists must be proficient on at least three instruments, but the ability to engage a patient via music is also paramount. "We're musicians second and therapists first," Dinsmore says. "You must be concerned about the client more than the music. Music is a means to an end."
Music therapists work on a healthcare team that can include a physician, dietitian, social worker, psychologist, nurse and other therapists. Music therapists set their goals according to the team's -- for instance, urging a patient struggling with trunk control to stand and play the drums -- and report the patient's activity level to the team to help chart progress.
"The more actively engaged [patients] are, the higher level of coping they're exhibiting," says Janice Stouffer, a music therapist at the 500-bed Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. "I use that as my gauge. Even if it's for a short time that they're actively engaged, it's very beneficial for them."
Stouffer totes her large cart of music and instruments to her patients' hospital rooms to personalize each therapy session for both adults and children. She might play music to relieve a child's anxiety over having his dressing changed or lullabies for a sick infant. She may help school-age patients create their own songs and rhymes or let them play instruments themselves.
Meanwhile, Dinsmore at Masonic Village offers music therapy sessions throughout the day to groups of eight to 25. She also visits the ill and dying in their rooms and helps catalog every resident's musical preferences, so she knows what to play for them.
Some healthcare facilities have music therapy divisions with two to four therapists, and many have student interns on staff. But often a music therapist is a facility's only such specialist, working under supervisors who aren't music therapy experts.
To broaden music therapy awareness, Dinsmore extends herself beyond Masonic Village's small music therapy staff by working with students, giving presentations at conferences and inviting healthcare colleagues to attend her sessions.
"Music brings out what's still there," she says. "It finds parts of a person that are still whole and encourages them to respond."