music therapy

By Anna Sedcole, Masters Student in Music Therapy

Let’s start with the broad picture. What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is the use of music for non-musical goals. Music Therapy New Zealand (MThNZ) describes it as “the planned use of music to assist with the healing and personal growth of people with identified emotional, intellectual, physical or social needs.” For example, music therapy might help a child with autism to communicate; it might help someone with a stroke to re-learn to speak; or it might help someone process grief and trauma without needing to use words.

Music Therapy seems to straddle two worlds between Art and Health. Can you offer some examples of research which shows how music benefits people?

You’re right, Music Therapy relates to a number of different disciplines, such as health and medicine, education, and neuroscience. There’s a lot of research that I could mention, but perhaps some recent examples of interesting research that spring to mind include Dr Daphne Rickson’s research showing that music therapy can help children with autism. (Dr Rickson is my supervisor at Victoria University and the coordinator for the Music Therapy programme.) Her research is still in its early stages, but it is expected to add to the growing evidence that music therapy is a useful intervention for children with autism to help them with their cognitive, emotional, and sensory regulation. I am able to see evidence of this in my own practice, of how music therapy regulates children on the spectrum, but it’s great to have this research to support my learning and to add to the building blocks of my own research. Another exciting piece of research that is currently underway is an international study based in Australia, looking at music therapy interventions with people living with dementia. Led by Professor Felicity Baker of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, the researchers are conducting a major randomised controlled trial and are hoping to show that interventions with people living with dementia delivered by a trained music therapist are more effective in addressing their wellbeing than participating in a community music group, particularly for people with more advanced dementia. What’s really exciting and surprising is that early research has shown that people living with dementia can engage in song writing and learn new music, and that demonstrates that people with dementia can still learn, even with declining cognitive function.

You are currently studying towards a Masters in Music Therapy. What led you to studying Music Therapy?

Yes, I’m nearly finished my Masters now. I was vaguely aware of music therapy a few years ago, as a friend was studying it, but I never really considered studying it myself until I visited my grandmother in her final days and decided to sing something to her. She was largely unresponsive by that point, but she clearly responded to me singing. I thought, there’s something in this! So I applied to audition for the Masters programme and here I am.

What has changed in your understanding of Music Therapy? What has surprised you during your studies?

I didn’t really know much about music therapy before I started my training, so a great deal has changed! I was surprised at how much research is behind it. I had a sense that music was good for people, but it’s important to have a body of research behind you to convince the people holding the purse strings! Of course, music can be difficult to quantify and there are ongoing challenges with evidence-based research, partly because of the difficulty in providing exactly the same intervention when people and improvising are involved! But I think music therapy research is a really exciting and developing area.

Do you have placements as part of your study? Are you able to talk about these? What has inspired/encouraged you, or otherwise?

Yes, we have three varied placements to give us a breadth of understanding and experience. I can talk generally about my placements: I have had short placements at an aged-care residence, at a brain injury rehabilitation centre, and a longer placement at a mainstream primary school. All of these placements have been thoroughly worthwhile and I’ve been inspired by seeing how many people respond to music. It’s a cliché but it really is the universal language! I’ve been confronted by difficult situations sometimes, but I have learnt that we are all people – and music gives you the ability to bypass a person’s diagnosis and challenges and really connect with them. I have met very few people in my placements who didn’t connect with music.

” I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.”


What does Music Therapy look like? What sort of music do you use? Is it about performing music, is it about listening, do certain genres work better/differently to others?

Good questions! And I’m afraid the answer is: it depends. It depends on the client’s musical interests, and it depends on what the goals of the therapy are. If, for example, you wanted to encourage someone with Parkinson’s to walk, you might use some marching music; if you wanted to connect with someone who has dementia, you might play something that you know they listened to in their childhood or adolescence; if you wanted to encourage interpersonal skills with children, you might use a turn-taking song. So I wouldn’t say that certain genres work better than others, but during the Masters programme, we develop our improvisation skills and learn how to improvise ‘in the style of’, as well as compiling a varied portfolio of songs that could be used with different clients in varying scenarios. Yes, it can be about listening – in fact, there’s a method of music therapy called Guided Imagery and Music, which uses pre-recorded music to explore a client’s inner world and help them to work on significant life issues. Music therapy isn’t usually about performing – it’s more about the process – but it can involve performing, such as the Neurological Choir’s annual fundraising performance.

How does becoming a Music Therapist work? Perhaps you can tell us about MThNZ, or what you need to do to become a practitioner?

To become a registered Music Therapist, you need to complete a Masters in Music Therapy, which in New Zealand is only offered at Victoria University of Wellington. You need to have an undergraduate degree and at least a paper in psychology or sociology. I completed an honours degree in sociology, but other students have degrees in music performance, education, psychology, and musicology. After completing the degree, you apply for provisional registration and need to prove that you are committed to ongoing professional development and that you have regular supervision. This means that when someone hires a music therapist, there is an assurance of safety because of these requirements and the code of ethics that we abide by.

What sort of people need to see a Music Therapist? How do you see a Music Therapist? Is Music Therapy available to all New Zealanders?

Anyone can see a music therapist in private practice, but music therapists tend to work with people who have identified emotional, physical, or communicative needs. We work with people from the very beginning of life – babies in NICU – to elderly people with dementia or physical needs. Some examples of where music therapists work include schools, in early intervention, with neurological choirs, in brain rehabilitation centres, in hospitals, and rest homes. Sometimes facilities employ music therapists, or the music therapist is contracted to come in to provide therapy, and it can be free for people in those facilities. But we would like to have more music therapists employed by organisations such as district health boards and the ministry of education to make it more widely available to anyone who would benefit from it.

For more information on Music Therapy, finding out how to train as a therapist, or how to find a therapist visit:

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