Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Music Therapy: A World Wide Definition

“Music therapy? What is that?”

Every student, intern, and board certified music therapist is constantly advocating for our profession. The difficult part about answering this question is explaining a very complex field in simple terms. Over the years I have developed my definition of music therapy that seems to fit perfectly:

Music Therapy is the use of music as a therapeutic tool to accomplish non-musical goals by a board certified music therapist.

In the United States, this definition works. There is a structured procedure in which the therapist plans sessions and documents progress. The American Music Therapy Association supports the music therapy profession by committing to “the advancement of education, training, professional standards, credentials, and research.” Through this organization the field is regulated. Their definition of music therapy can be found on the website www.musictherapy.org

After our week of clinical experience here in the Bangkok area, my definition of what music therapy is did not seem to fit. Sitting in a room full of chemotherapy patients and singing to them felt more like being a music volunteer. Playing music for a group of older adults in day care did not seem like it was achieving any goals. There was no interaction between the clients and the therapists. There seemed to be no documentation or evaluation of the progress. These were my observations at first glance.

At closer examination, it was more obvious to see the changes in the clients. The smiles that appeared when a couple of farang (foreigners) sing Thai songs were genuine. The direct eye contact that a young boy with Cerebral Palsy gives you is gratitude for the attention. The requests during a sing along are proof that these older adults enjoy the social interaction. The laughs that ring through the room full of children diagnosed with cancer show a relief from pain. All of these things were possible because of the music.

Music is an important part of every culture across the world. Humans in general have the natural tendency to enjoy a beat and appreciate melodies. An entire field called ethnomusicology is dedicated to the study of music around the world in a variety of different cultures. No civilization, new or old, has been found to have an absence of music. (www.ethnomusicology.org)

It is not strange then to think that such a universal phenomenon could affect human beings in a way that improves their lives. Though music exists in all countries, there is no reason to assume that the music itself would sound the same from one part of the world to the next. Why then, would music therapy look the same across the globe? Using music as a therapeutic tool can look hundreds of different ways and serve the same function: Improving people’s lives.

Here in Thailand the music therapy sessions look different than they do in the United States. There are more group sessions, less standardized documentation, a repetitive approach, and a tendency to come up with session plans on the fly. The results, however, are just the same. Clients are experiencing social activity in these group sessions. People who are “disabled” become involved in the music by shaking a shaker. Patients who are dealing with emotional and physical pain have decreased anxiety. Clients are empowered by the ability to make a decision on which song to hear.

Yes, music therapy in Thailand is different than the music therapy we know in the United States. Does that make it less valid? No.

I would suggest a new definition of music therapy that covers not just the US, but also the entire world:

Music Therapy is the use of music as a therapeutic tool to empower individuals and increase the quality of life.

Music therapy students from the US participating in a Thai music therapy session. 

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