Just what is music therapy? One student/instructor/performer explains

By Austin Robinson
CHS Contributor

“Music is powerful. Music is the best medicine. Music is my therapy.”

You’ve probably seen these phrases or maybe even said them yourself, and you’re not wrong. Maybe music gets you through the day or through the extra mile on your run. Music may help you focus while studying or distract you while walking across campus. You may put on your favorite song to boost energy or to relax at the end of the day. Whatever the reason, most of us can say music is a meaningful, daily part of life. 

Music can powerfully affect mood, help in physical rehabilitation, and enhance learning. In fact, that “power” is actually the foundation of the evidence-based practice of music therapy. If you’re unfamiliar with music therapy, you’re not alone. The modern practice of music therapy began in the 1940s but may still be unfamiliar to many people. 

My name is Austin Robinson, and I am a board-certified music therapist, owner of Lexington’s Edge Music Therapy, and part-time instructor in the music therapy department here at UK. I’m also a student. My primary clinical and research areas include music and the brain, music and aging, and interdisciplinary collaboration. I’d like to provide you with a look at music therapy in practice, and explain a little bit about why I chose this path. 

What is music therapy? 

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is the clinical, evidence-based use of music to achieve non-musical, therapeutic outcomes. Person-centered interventions are designed to meet individualized needs and delivered within a therapeutic relationship by a board-certified music therapist.  

Music therapists are credentialed professionals who attended an approved academic program, undergo over 1,200 hours of clinical training, and pass a board certification exam. Music therapists are trained to therapeutically apply the functions of music to restore, maintain, or improve physical, cognitive and emotional health.  

Music therapists utilize a variety of instruments during sessions — most use guitar, piano, percussion instruments and voice on a daily basis. My primary instrument is guitar and percussion. For work, I also utilize piano/keyboard, electronic instruments and programs, and anything else the client or patient may be interested in.

Where do music therapists work? 

Music therapists work with everyone, from womb to end-of-life care, and everything in between. From hospitals and rehabilitation facilities to schools and hospice care, music therapists work in areas alongside other allied health professionals.   

Here at UK, clinical music therapists see patients at Chandler Hospital, Kentucky Children’s Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital, Eastern State Hospital and the Markey Cancer Center. On the academic side, music therapists prepare the next generation of clinicians and educators in the state’s only graduate music therapy program.  

What happens during a music therapy session? 

Music therapy is a person-centered treatment, much like you receive in other therapies like physical, occupational, or speech therapy. During a session you may engage in musical experiences such as instrument play, singing, or moving to music. Interventions are designed to address individualized needs and support goals that are developed by the music therapist and the individual in treatment.  

One group Robinson has been working with for several years now as a music therapist is a group of adults with Parkinson’s Disease. Listen to their choir in the video. 

How did I get into music therapy? 

I grew up in London, Kentucky, and was heavily involved in all things music. From choir, band, and theater to learning to play bluegrass with my uncles, I was always surrounded by music. So much so that I went on to study percussion, music theory, and composition at Eastern Kentucky University. After undergrad I worked in various positions within the music industry, from playing and teaching to stagehand and retail sales.  

Several years later, at the age of 32, a friend shared a book they had found on the New York Times Best Sellers List, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of A Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin. This book introduced me to the neuroscience of music and discussed the biological foundations of what makes music powerful. It was the first time I saw anything about music therapy, and I was hooked. Coincidentally, UK was starting a new graduate program in music therapy, so I set up an interview. After that interview, I knew I was headed in the right direction.  

My experience with clinical training, teaching and research during the graduate program piqued my interest in the possibility of a career in academia at some point down the road. After completing my degree, I started a private practice music therapy clinic in Lexington and began teaching as a part-time instructor in the Music Therapy Department at UK.  

I love being a clinician and have had the opportunity to see the power of music in action. One group of folks I’ve been working with for several years now is a group of adults with Parkinson’s Disease. We have a choir group and a drumming group that meet weekly, and we were even able to transition to virtual group meetings during the past 16 months.  

These groups are a wonderful example of the various ways music therapists utilize the therapeutic functions of music. We help strengthen oral musculature and increase breath support through vocal warm-ups, breathing exercises and singing. Drumming and choreographed movement to music help strengthen upper and lower extremity muscles, improve balance, and it presents a variety of cognitive challenges for attention, dual-tasking, and impulse control. Group members also enjoy the social aspect of group music making and they look forward to the occasional public performance. 

Why is there a story about music therapy in the CHS news feed? 

You may be wondering why a story about music therapy, which is not part of the College of Health Sciences, is appearing in the CHS News feed. It’s because I am a music therapist and doctoral student in the Rehabilitation and Health Sciences PhD Program.  

The interdisciplinary program is designed to address the rehabilitation needs of Kentucky and beyond by training the next leaders in rehabilitation research, clinical practice, and education. The program has historically been filled by professionals from physical therapy, communication sciences and disorders, and occupational therapy. In recent years, the program has expanded its interdisciplinary reach to include athletic trainers, music therapists, and more.  

Why a PhD in Rehabilitation and Health Sciences? 

Interest in a PhD came when my interest in teaching and researching turned from part-time to a full-time goal. My mentor, colleague, and Music Therapy Department Chair, Olivia Swedberg Yinger, PhD, MT-BC, recommended I check out the Rehabilitation and Health Sciences PhD program. 

I started in 2019 as part-time doctoral student and now at 43, I’ve never been happier to be so uncomfortable! The professors and my peers are very supportive, which make the Rehabilitation and Health Sciences PhD program a wonderful, healthy atmosphere for learning and growth. 

To learn more, check out the Rehabilitation and Health Sciences PhD program or the Music Therapy program at UK.