The Difference Between Music Therapists, Music Teachers, and Professional Musicians

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

I’ve been asked this question pretty frequently throughout my career. Sometimes it can be difficult for an onlooker to realize what the difference is. The beauty of music is that it is inherently therapeutic, even without intentionally setting goals. However, a music therapist can maximize all the benefits music provides. I’ve been in each of these roles at some point in my life and, in my opinion, the biggest difference between all of them is the PURPOSE and INTENTION behind the use of music.


Professional Musician

Musicians are extremely proficient in the technical and expressive aspects of music. They are entertainers and performers, and have extensive training in the art. However, they are not trained in the therapeutic uses of music, which means they may not be able to utilize their repertoire to address goals outside of their own performance. They are also not trained in noticing or responding to the psychological aspects of each client. The purpose of playing music for the musician is to interpret the music to the best of their ability and to encourage an emotional response in the audience.


Music Teacher

As the title suggests, the purpose of a music teacher is to teach music! This encompasses note-reading, rhythm, musicality, how to play certain instruments, etc. The goals of a music teacher would be to teach a certain skill related to music. Though this can be useful to the student in other aspects of their lives, the main purpose of learning these skills is to enhance their musical knowledge.


Music Therapist

Music therapists have formal training in both music and in psychology, which means they are able to identify and respond to different psychological conditions using music experiences. They go through rigorous training, including field work and a clinical internship, and cannot practice until they take the board exam, after which they earn the title MT-BC (music therapist board certified). A music therapist chooses music purposefully, with the intent to work on certain goal areas (physical, emotional, social, communication, cognitive, spiritual). They utilize all aspects of music, whether it’s creating, listening, discussing, or engaging. They are constantly reassessing throughout the session to ensure that the goals they have set are being met and have the training to redirect and change their direction if need be.


Here’s an example of how I’ve fulfilled each role in a senior home setting:


As a volunteer musician, I’ve traveled to senior homes to perform concerts. I would typically perform repertoire I was working on (I was pursuing a degree in clarinet performance at the time). I chose music that I knew I could perform well or repertoire that I wanted a chance to practice in front of a smaller audience.


As a music teacher, I taught private piano lessons to a woman living in an assisted living center. Though I’m sure she had added benefits that affected her outside of our lessons, my sole purpose was to make sure she was learning and practicing the repertoire I assigned her.


As a music therapist, I’ve had the opportunity to lead several groups in assisted living homes/memory care units. I always begin every contract with a trial group/assessment, where I can gauge the personalities, dynamics, and music tastes of the clients I’ll be working with. This allows me to formulate some goals and objectives for our future sessions. Based off of this information I’ll choose music and music experiences that I feel best suit our goals and will be most engaging for the clients involved.


If you’re someone looking to add music to your program, then kudos to you! Any type of music will enrich your residents’ lives. However, if you’re looking to maximize benefits for your residents, I highly recommend you consider a music therapist.


Want to learn more about music therapy? Book a free consultation here!

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