Tiffany Music Therapy

What is Music Psychotherapy?

By: Kaitlyn Kasha, MMT, MTA, RP-Q

Coming to therapy for the first time can be nerve-wracking.  It is difficult to know what to expect and how to navigate a new, vulnerable relationship with someone that you just met.  Even clients who have been coming to therapy for years might find it challenging to start with a new therapist or explore a new approach.  More and more, there are resources being made available and public conversations occurring about therapy and its value.

This post is aimed at continuing and adding to this discussion so that coming to therapy, and not just therapy but music psychotherapy, is a bit less intimidating.

So, What is Music Psychotherapy?

According to the Canadian Association of Music Therapists (CAMT), the definition of music therapy is:

a discipline in which Certified Music Therapists (MTAs) use music purposefully within therapeutic relationships to support development, health, and well-being. Music therapists use music safely and ethically to address human needs within cognitive, communicative, emotional, musical, physical, social, and spiritual domains. 

Music therapists use music to facilitate growth and healing in all areas of wellness.  Music therapists are also psychotherapists. Psychotherapy, according to the CRPO, “occurs when the Registered Psychotherapist (RP) and client enter into a psychotherapeutic relationship where both work together to bring about positive change in the client’s thinking, feeling, behaviour and social functioning.” Music psychotherapy connects music therapy techniques and resources to psychotherapeutic relationships and settings.  Music therapists who have completed graduate studies can become registered psychotherapists through the CRPO.

Music therapists who are Registered Psychotherapists can employ verbal and musical methods within a therapeutic relationship based on their individual experience and education.  A therapist’s unique approach to music psychotherapy may also depend on their theoretical perspective.  This means that music can be used as an instrument in therapy, or as the instrument of therapy (pun intended!).

Kenneth Bruscia, a notable music therapy scholar, wrote about how the role of music in therapy can be described in four different ways: verbal psychotherapy with music, music in psychotherapy, music-centered psychotherapy, and music as psychotherapy.  On one end of the spectrum, music can be used in verbal psychotherapy settings where it is a part of the work but not the main focus, or music can be used as the central process of therapeutic change.

Music in Therapy at Our Practice

At Tiffany Music Therapy, we believe in the power of music and its role in a therapeutic process. However, we also value verbal psychotherapeutic methods and perspectives.  Therefore, we often integrate musical and verbal approaches with clients based on their needs, goals, values, desires, and comfort levels in the moment.  Personally, I often employ a music in therapy approach, in which “the work is done equally in music and words…with music used for its unique nonverbal advantages, and words used to enhance insight,” or a verbal psychotherapy with music approach, in which “the work is done primarily through verbal discourse, with music used to facilitate or enrich the process” (Bruscia, 1998, p. 214).

What Might Happen in a Music Psychotherapy Session:

There are a wide range of theories, approaches, and methods within both psychotherapy and music therapy.  It would make this article much too long to review all of them, but it may be useful to outline the four main categories of experiences that can be offered in music psychotherapy.

1. Receptive

Receptive experiences involve listening to music, which can either be recorded or played live in sessions.  This might include a wide variety of experiences, including music and mindfulness, music and relaxation, music and imagery, analyzing song lyrics, sharing significant songs, or building intentional playlists.  Receptive experiences are related to a variety of goals, ranging from evoking particular emotions or experiences (like relaxation) to exploring the ideas of others and making connections to current emotions or situations (like through lyric analysis).

2. Improvisation

To improvise means to make music on the spot.  This can involve melodic instruments, percussion instruments, and/or voices or any combination.  In therapy, improvisation can involve solos, duets with clients and therapists, or larger groups (in the case of group therapy).  Improvisation can be referential, which means that it aims to represent a theme, idea, emotion, etc., or non-referential or free.  Improvisation can help to externalize internal experiences and provide a non-verbal avenue of expression.

3. Recreative

Recreative experiences involve re-creating pre-composed music.  This might involve therapeutic music instruction, learning, playing, or performing a significant song.  Besides the potential for recreative experiences to build musical skills, goals may also be related to improving communication, memory, coordination, attention, focus, or empathy.

4. Composition or Songwriting

Compositional experiences involve creating original musical material.  This could range from re-writing or changing an existing song to align it more specifically with one’s perspective or life experience or creating completely original music.  Songwriting, like improvisation, can provide an opportunity to explore, express, and process experiences; however, it can be a longer process.  Additionally, songwriting can involve the creation of a product (i.e. a song) that can be used as a resource both inside and outside of therapy.

All in All

Therapy, whether it involves verbal or musical methods, is aimed at processing emotions, experiences and memories to holistically improve well-being.  Therapeutic relationships are meant to provide safe spaces for this vulnerable and meaningful work to occur.

Therapy is meant to be goal-oriented and can support clients in working towards goals representing any facet of well-being, including cognitive, emotional, relational, spiritual, physical, etc.  Therapists often provide support and validation as well as psychoeducation on resources and coping strategies that can improve quality of life beyond sessions.

Music psychotherapy offers the same benefits and presents unique opportunities for creative, abstract, and nonverbal expression and processing.  Music psychotherapy is accessible to everyone; it is not required to have any previous experience playing an instrument or theoretical knowledge.

However, music psychotherapy is perhaps most intriguing to clients who have a passion for music, value creativity, have difficulty with verbal processing, have felt stuck when trying verbal methods of therapy, or simply want to try something new.  The therapists at Tiffany Music Therapy work from a client-centered perspective, meaning that sessions are focused on a client’s needs, goals, and interests.  So, what is music psychotherapy?  Well, certainly part of the answer to this question is up to you!


You might also be interested in:

The Beatles & Therapy

For more information, please visit:


Bruscia, K. (1998) Defining Music Therapy. Barcelona Publishers.

Bruscia, K. (1998) Dynamics of Music Psychotherapy. Barcelona Publishers. K. Bruscia (ed.).