• Noel Anderson, MMT, MT-BC

FAQ Series: What do you actually do?!


Being a music therapist means constantly being asked...

“What is music therapy?"

"What do you actually DO?”

That’s kind of like asking “what is music?” We can all pretty much agree that it’s sound organized in time, but the nuances can be debated.

While music therapists adjust our practice to meet the needs, abilities, and preferences of each client, individual sessions follow a general arc.


Whereas a group session (see our blog post describing group sessions) may target social skills, rhythmic competency, or teamwork and cohesion,

Individual music therapy provides opportunities for deeply individualized goals and objectives

AND increased creativity and flux in music making.

Typically, one-on-one sessions begin with a “Hello Song” and an introduction to the musical space.

Depending on the client, I might move towards an improvisational form or a structured intervention, based on their comfort level.

For example, if a client is working on receptive listening skills or following instructions, we might begin with improv to ease into more rigid forms; if a client has difficulty opening up and making music without guidelines/expressing themselves, we may start with very structured music-making and later move to more improvisational interventions.)

I may use "repeat-after-me" (call and response) drumming to practice receptive listening skills or motor skills, or use ordered patterns on pitched or unpitched instruments to address working memory.

1-on-1 sessions often provide an opportunity to go “deep, not wide”

in ways that groups may not.

For example, I may be able to work intensively on writing a song with a client, and then record it for future use or reference.

For some clients, developing musical skills may be part of their goals, and we can use adapted music lessons to accomplish these. Some private lesson teachers may not be comfortable or willing to work with neuro-divergent students-

A music therapist can teach any multitude of instruments (or voice) while also addressing other needs in a clinically informed manner.

Why do music therapy sessions look different each time?

Different music therapists may also have a theoretical orientation, which informs their practice and the clients they serve.

In the way that talk therapists might practice psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, or rational emotive behavioral therapy, many music therapists practice under different methodologies.

The Nordoff-Robbins method is a highly improvisational practice, in which the act of making music is the core of therapy. Nordoff-Robbins music therapists frequently record sessions and analyze every moment of music therapy- the analysis of a session often takes much longer than the session itself.

Nordoff-Robbins practitioners use live-composed music (often the piano) to meet their clients where they are and work to explore new methods of engaging and communicating.


The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music is practiced in the 1:1 setting, and involves carefully curated playlists of instrumental music and scripts that take the listener on a transcendental journey.

It’s a very in-depth, emotional and psychoanalytical process that’s usually undertaken with adults. GIM practitioners may undergo multiple levels of training to achieve various certifications.


Neurological Music Therapy studies and applies the connections between the brain and music, using the incredible plasticity of the brain and the inherent power of music to work with people who have suffered strokes, traumatic brain injury, or other neurological impairments.

Gabby Giffords, the Arizona Congresswoman who suffered brain injury as a result of gun violence, may be the most prominent example of the positive impact of Neurological Music Therapy. Working with an NMT, Giffords was able to relearn speech.

The centers for speech and singing are in opposite hemispheres of the brain, so if someone suffers a stroke on the left side of their brain (where the speech center is), but the right side is intact, they may still be able to sing, even if they are experiencing expressive aphasia (the inability to speak).

Music therapy can essentially “rewire” the neurons so that singing moves to rhythmic chanting, which moves to speech in a normal cadence.

Rhythm can also be used in gait training to help people with motor deficits due to brain injury or stroke walk in a steady, timed manner, reducing the risk of falls and increasing independence.


As a side note: Noel, our director, is trained in NMT and Cassie, one of our music therapists was trained in NMT techniques during her internship under the guide of a music therapist who specializes in NMT.

While many music therapists specialize in one of these fields, or hold extra certifications beyond their degrees, many practicing music therapists use an eclectic approach, borrowing certain techniques and principles from areas of the field as they relate to their clients.


The assessment process helps us to gauge our client’s needs, interests, and responses to music, which will inform how we proceed with treatment.

In the way that you might create your perfect playlist to suit different settings and feelings, we align our practice to meet each client where they are.

Music therapy sounds like it may be a great fit for my loved one (or me). Now what?

If you’re interested in knowing what music therapy could look like for you or a loved one, scheduling a consultation or an assessment is a great way to find out!


What is a consultation?

During a free consultation, we can talk through expectations of the therapeutic process, we can make a little music to break the ice, and we can answer any questions you may have about how music therapy can specifically address your needs.

What happens in a music therapy assessment?

An assessment usually consists of two 45-minute sessions, tailored to assess all the major areas of functioning (Gross and Fine Motor Skills, Expressive Communication, Receptive Communication, Social Skills, Emotional Functioning, Cognition, etc.), after which the music therapist will prepare a detailed report that outlines the clients areas of strength, areas of need, and a list of goals and objectives to address them.

Assessments and goals are generally updated every 6-months to reflect a client’s progress and any new needs that may emerge.

One of the things I love about working individually with clients is how one song or intervention can take on so many different uses, depending on the person.

For one client, playing “Simon Says” on the xylophone may address working memory, while another person may be working on fine motor skills, and a third could be practicing receptive listening skills and turn-taking without interruption.


Music that may look similar from the outside is accomplishing so many different things!

In the same way that no two singer’s rendition of a song is quite the same, no two therapy sessions are ever exactly alike.


Catherine, MT-BC

If you'd like to learn more about music therapy for you or your family member schedule a quick and free consultation below:


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Roanoke, Virginia 

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Fax: 540.808.1582

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