It is common practice for a parent or individual to seek out music instruction for their child or themselves at all ages. Some may enroll their children or themselves in private piano or guitar lessons and others experience music by participating in band, choir, or orchestra in school or in the community. Music has many cognitive and developmental benefits, both in the setting of music performance and in music therapy, but the benefits and goals of each are very different from one another. How, you ask? Let’s explore the differences!

Music is the therapeutic measuring tool, not the goal

Music therapy is the planned use of music to target functional, non-musical goals. In other words, musical skill or knowledge isn’t the goal in music therapy as it is in music lessons. In a music therapy session, the instruments or music-based activities are chosen and structured to help the patient meet their goals. Therapeutic goals being addressed in a music therapy session might be related to speech and language, fine or gross motor skills, cognitive areas such as following directions, or even social skills. Music lessons, however, are centered around teaching someone how to read music and teaching them how to play their chosen instrument. Lessons and therapy differ in their intention and purpose but can both be valuable and beneficial.

Musical ability can play a role in music therapy sessions at the discretion of the therapist

It’s common for music therapy patients to also be involved in music lessons, a music ensemble or have a history of musical abilities. A common question music therapists get before, during or after the initial evaluation is if we can help the patient with their instrument, music reading, or music-related assignments. Sometimes the therapist may opt to include the patient’s musical skill into the session if it helps to address a non-musical treatment goal, such as playing the piano to strengthen fine motor skills. The patient’s love of a specific instrument can give the therapist an opportunity to create an activity based around that instrument that can help create and strengthen neural pathways in the brain.

Your music therapist may not recommend music lessons for your child or loved one outside of sessions.

Sometimes we therapists will get a question from a family we serve about whether or not we recommend that the patient be enrolled in piano, guitar or some other music lessons outside of music therapy. Your music therapist is a good gauge of musical ability. We can notice the presence or absence of pitch, rhythm, or the attention and cognitive level necessary for lessons. If your therapist doesn’t see your child or loved one as a good fit for getting musical lessons, it’s not because of lack of music therapy progress or the lack of musical motivation. Rather, the music therapist simply may not see music lessons as a good fit for the patient at the time.

Music is loved by many, making it an ideal catalyst for progress in both therapeutic or instructional settings. While music lessons focus on the progress that is made towards musical mastery, music therapy is focused on using music as the measuring tool by which individual goal progress is assessed. Though they each have a different primary focus, both lessons and music therapy are centered around helping someone achieve a particular type of progress with a musical focus.