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The Rise of the Music Therapy Profession and the Pioneers who made it Happen

So why did Music Therapy not become a series of music-based techniques but instead become an autonomous profession?

I have asked myself this question many times throughout my career. Especially as many other individuals and groups in healthcare settings have begun to incorporate music within their work. Is there still a #caseformusictherapy? 

I believe there is.  

Techniques and activities are good but not sufficient. Providing comprehensive health services throughout a plethora of populations requires nuanced understanding and experience. When dealing with humans and their health, I believe personalization can never be out of vogue.  

The music therapy profession became necessary when all the layers of music and therapy were considered. It would be the music therapy pioneers who would move us through the necessary steps required for regulation. 

Let’s look further at what constitutes a profession and how the pioneers got us here.

The Pioneers

The earliest pioneers had a few ‘start and stop’ moments in the early 1900s. In 1903, Eva Augusta Vescelius founded the National Society of Musical Therapeutics. In 1926, Isa Maud Ilsen founded the National Association for Music in Hospitals. And in 1941, Harriet Ayer Seymour founded the National Foundation of Music Therapy. Although these organizations were not successful in mobilizing a sustainable organization they did contribute to some of the first journals, books, and educational courses on music as a therapeutic intervention.

In the 1940s psychiatrist and music therapist Ira Altshuler, MD broke through after promoting music therapy in Michigan for three decades. Willem van de Wall pioneered the use of music therapy in state-funded facilities and wrote the first “how to” music therapy text, Music in Institutions (1936) and E. Thayer Gaston, known as the “father of music therapy,” was instrumental in moving the profession forward in terms of an organizational and educational point of view. 

Shortly afterward, Dr. Paul Nordoff, an esteemed composer, a graduate of the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard Graduate School, and Dr. Clive Robbins a special education teacher, identified new ways to reach the children and develop their cognitive processes.

The collective findings, from all these early pioneers, seems to have been that music when used with intention, increased engagement levels that unlocked hidden potential and developed new strengths.

Although music therapists constitute a small group compared to other better-known professionals, music therapy was well underway. Soon to be a recognized allied health service – filling necessary gaps for individuals and groups in the areas of mood, motivation, and memory domains.

Becoming a Profession

The term profession according to the European Union’s Directive on Recognition of Professional Qualifications states, “those practiced on the basis of relevant professional qualifications in a personal, responsible and professionally independent capacity by those providing intellectual and conceptual services in the interest of the client and the public.” Major milestones which may mark an occupation transitioning to a profession include:

  1. an occupation becomes a full-time occupation through the efforts of early pioneers
  2. the establishment of a training school
  3. the establishment of a local/national association of professional ethics
  4. the establishment of licensing laws/regulations.

The first three have been established through grit, determination, and hard work of many national music therapy associations. The 4th is in process throughout many countries, including in my province where I just, this week, submitted my paperwork to be a part of the Counselling Therapies Association.  

Today the education of a music therapist continues to formalize. The music therapist’s curriculum includes coursework in music therapy, psychology, music, biological, social and behavioral sciences, disabilities, and general studies. After academic training and their 1000 hour internship, the student is eligible for admission to the certification exam administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

We have come a long way from those early days.

I will give Fran Herman, one of Canada’s earliest pioneers, the final word as to why pioneers felt it was worth moving music therapy forward in the manner we have: 

“I think that every little step we achieve helps make people realize how empowering music therapy can be. Every time we have success with a client, every time we touch someone and there is a response that is positive, it helps to widen the awareness of how music has been a part of the lives of every group of people on every continent from the days of the first beating drum.” – Fran Herman

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