What Happens in a Music Therapy Group?


When we get new clients or referrals, oftentimes parents don’t know what to expect when they send their children to a music therapy group.

While families may have experience with music classes at school, or even recreational music programs like Music Together™ or Kindermusic™, what happens in a music therapy session may look a lot different. Additionally, things that look similar may actually have entirely different goals and motivations.

Things that look similar may actually have entirely different goals and motivations.

Generally speaking, groups are more structured than individual sessions. The inherent structural elements of western music are very effective in bringing order to a group of individuals who may be operating on different energy levels, methods of communication, or emotions on any given day.

For a social skills group, I will typically progress from simpler, intuitive interventions to more difficult and demanding activities, before bringing the energy level back down to end the session. The analogue of a bell curve graph works to show the flow of a session.

A bell curve graph works to show the flow of a session.


Below, I’ll share a typical session outline along with the therapeutic rationale for each intervention.

1. Hello Song

Singing “Hello” allows participants to learn each other’s names while also introducing musical elements and creating expectations for the remainder of the session.

If you’ve done Music Together you may be familiar with this one. For clients who are non-verbal, a hello song allows for other participants to sing to them while they still get to communicate via playing a solo on a percussion instrument or strumming my guitar.


2. Rhythmic Improvisation

Depending on the group’s age and ability, following a hello song I will typically introduce some sort of rhythm instrument playing, like a drum circle.

The process of collaborative playing strengthens listening skills, team work, and impulse control (participants must wait to hear a pattern before they play it).

Splitting the group into two smaller groups can also support musical communication between peers.


For participants who are less comfortable speaking or making eye contact, playing an instrument can be a more comfortable way to socialize with others, and can provide a conduit to these other social skills.

For clients who struggle with shyness, instrument playing can be a confidence boost!

For clients who struggle with shyness, instrument playing can be a confidence boost!

3. Action Songs

Song lyrics can be a great way to help reinforce skills and appropriate actions.

For example, I often do a piggyback of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” changed to “I Want to Shake Your Hand” wherein we discuss ways of greeting peers and seeking consent for any physical contact.


Singing the instructions to “shake hands” or “give a high five” to a friend is more engaging and effective than practicing these activities without music.

Singing ... is more engaging and effective than practicing these activities without music.

4. Melodic Improvisation

Melodic instruments like xylophone allow for group members to play individual solos and practice supporting their peers as listeners.

As each group member waits for their turn, they practice impulse control, working together with peers to sing to other group members, and making eye contact with each other and the music therapist as appropriate.

The structure of the song (I often use 12-bar blues forms) gives a clear time limit to the solo, and helps place clear expectations for group members on how long they have to play, and how long they have to wait for their turn.

The structure of the song gives ... clear expectations for group members.

5. Songwriting

For older groups, songwriting is often helpful to solidify learned concepts and establish ownership over the material.

Songwriting is often helpful to solidify learned concepts and establish ownership over the material.


(I liken it to how a therapist might give you a million insights and until you yourself articulate them, it’s kind of wasted effort.)

So, for example, we may work on a topic like “Being a Good Friend,” or “Overcoming Anxiety” and write lyrics and music together to incorporate positive behaviors and coping strategies that we’ve worked on as a group.

6. Relaxation

Before ending every group, if possible, I like to include some sort of relaxation or mindfulness exercise to bring the energy level back down (and make transitions easier for parents, when possible).

This could include singing or listening to a peaceful song like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “All the Pretty Little Horses,” playing slow resonant instruments like chimes or the buffalo drum, or practicing deep breathing exercises.


7. Goodbye

In the same way that “Hello” songs establish the start of a session, “Goodbye” songs provide a clear end to the music.

Each group member gets the chance to play or sing goodbye to the MT and their peers, and the familiarity of the song provides closure at the end of each week’s session.

I generally use the same Hello and Goodbye song in each session, to provide consistency and manage expectations.

The familiarity of the song provides closure...

~ OTHER CONSIDERATIONS ~

While each session will be different, (the flexibility of music is one of the things that makes it such a great therapeutic tool!) there are constants from group to group.

The flexibility of music is one of the things that makes it such a great therapeutic tool!

For younger kids, we generally sit on the floor in a circle; older kids may either use chairs or also sit on the floor, depending on the space.

Circles help to provide equal opportunity and attention for each participant, and also act as a physical “container” for the music.

For the most part, kids will participate without other adults, but very young kids or those who might be better able to engage with support may have their parents or caregivers assist them.

Some groups may need to use quieter instruments due to noise sensitivities, while others might thrive on loud, raucous music making.

A music therapist is trained to assess and address these goals in ways that music instructors aren’t, which may lead to different outcomes for you and your child.


If your child has an affinity for music and struggles with socialization in other contexts, group music therapy may be an excellent opportunity to exercise those skills and generalize them to other settings!

Group music therapy may be an excellent opportunity...

We'd love for you to join us for our upcoming groups starting September 10, 2018!


Check out our latest group offerings


Catherine Backus, MT-BC


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