As a music therapist, I have been bombarded for years with the question, “What is music therapy?” And after my typical 30-second speech, the other person often replies with something like, “I do that all the time, when I play music when I clean or when I rock out to my favorite song in the car. That is MY music therapy.” At that point I can try to educate further, or I can just sigh and walk away letting them believe what they want to believe. Most often I do the latter. Trying to convince someone to change their way of thinking is nearly impossible in most cases, unless the person is truly interested in learning.
So that gets me to my point of what makes music therapy--or any therapy for that matter--a therapy. I practice music therapy and I also do recreational music which, in my opinion, is not therapy. Yes, recreational music done by a music therapist is not therapy, even though it can be therapeutic.
Some kind of training must be involved. I don’t even want to distinguish between training at a degree program, a weekend workshop or an online course. The issue gets into several grey areas, and that is one of them. But there needs to be some training involved. Something can be therapeutic, but without some kind of training by the practitioner, it cannot be a therapy. As an example, I could rub someone’s shoulders and that can be therapeutic to the person (and feel pretty darn good!), but I don’t have the training of a massage therapist and would never claim to be doing massage therapy on this person. In other words, the “therapist” must be qualified.
And there should be research involved in a therapy. The kind of research (quantitative, qualitative, historical) is not the issue here, just that research backing up what the practitioner is doing should be out there. It helps if the research is in a refereed journal or the like, but, again, grey area. Anecdotal reports from people about the effectiveness of this or that is helpful, but it should only be the start of one’s investigation. Is there research backing up the approach?
And the therapy should follow the therapeutic process. In music therapy this basic process is: assessment, program planning, implementation of intervention, and documentation/evaluation of the effectiveness of that intervention. By comparison, the American Physical Therapy Association lists the steps as: evaluation, plan of care, intervention, and reexamination. And I am sure occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists have similar steps in their therapy process. Without this there is no way to know where the person was before the intervention, and it makes it very hard to tell if the intervention was helpful.
In my recreational music work (i.e., with a choir of 55 individuals with developmental disabilities), the music is the focus, not the non-musical goals. Also, I do not do follow the therapeutic process mentioned above which is why I don’t consider my work there to be music therapy even though it is done by a board certified music therapist. It can be therapeutic to the choir members, but it is not music therapy.
There are a lot of “therapies” out there, more than I can name. My questions are, is there training involved, is there research to back it up and does it follow the therapeutic process? These, I am sure, are not the only things that can differentiate. I encourage you to try to think of others, but I think it is important to differentiate - just because something is therapeutic doesn’t make it a therapy.