What is music therapy? Me oh my! If you are thinking about a career as a music therapist, get ready to have a quick answer to that question –it will be asked frequently! I am excited the enCourage Kids Foundation (EKF) has given me the chance to answer that question in this post, as well as the opportunity to describe the role of music therapy in pediatric hospitals and a bit about my own career as a music therapist and researcher. Thanks, EKF! And who am I? My name is Jessica Jarvis, I have been a music therapist for roughly 10 years, and I am currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh completing a research fellowship to develop advanced skills in pediatric critical care research.

So, what is music therapy? The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines it as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” My elevator speech definition is typically something along the lines of “Music therapists address physical, emotional, cognitive, communicative, or social goals through the use of music. ‘Using music’ can mean listening to, moving to, singing, or creating music.” Keep in mind that music therapists work with individuals across the age span and work in many settings, including, but not limited to, schools, medical and psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, and correctional facilities. I worked in a pediatric hospital and thus this is the lens through which I often describe music therapy services.

As you can imagine with such a broad definition, music therapy can be utilized in a variety of ways in the medical field. In a given day at a pediatric hospital, a music therapist may work with a child on improving their attention and working memory through playing the drums, processing trauma through songwriting, providing alternate engagement through singing and instrument play with a child to decrease their pain perception during a burn dressing, increasing arousal and purposeful responses through music-based stimuli for children with altered mental status after brain injury, or supporting families during the end of their child’s life through legacy building. Sometimes we work individually with the child, sometimes we hold group sessions. We might co-treat with other creative arts therapists, child life specialists, rehabilitation therapists, or behavioral health therapists. It all comes down to what the child and their family’s priority needs are and how we can best support them in achieving those goals.

The ability to safely and effectively use music and music-based interventions to address an individual’s goals requires training. To become a board certified music therapist (MT-BC), you will need a degree in music therapy from an AMTA approved program, 1200 hours of supervised clinical training, and to pass a national certification exam administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. Note: Some states may require licensure, make sure to search the laws for your state.

Some of those clinical training hours are embedded in your degree program as fieldwork or practicum opportunities and the rest are completed during your music therapy internship. I was fortunate to be selected for a wonderful internship at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital with Christine Neugebauer. Amongst other things, Christine instilled in me a love of research and taught me how to how to find and understand the latest research in order to inform my clinical practice. Sometimes this was from music therapy-specific research, but, given how relatively young music therapy is, sometimes it meant applying findings from other related fields (such as neuroscience or psychology). I was lucky to be offered a position at Children’s after I completed my internship and I worked there for 5 wonderful years. Working as a music therapist in a level 1 pediatric trauma hospital is certainly challenging, but very rewarding. Similar to many music therapy programs in pediatric hospitals, our music therapy team provided services throughout the hospital. Over the years, I developed a particular passion for working with critically ill children and their families in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), which ultimately led me to my career as a researcher.

Being grounded in evidence-based practice, I wanted to make sure I was providing optimal care for this vulnerable population. However, I struggled to find published research on the use of music therapy in the PICU. I searched for published research on the efficacy of other rehabilitation therapies in the PICU, but to no avail. Finally, I sought for research on outcomes for children and families who survive a PICU admission, but there were few results. This lack of evidence-based rehabilitation approaches for critically ill children and limited knowledge about post-PICU outcomes inspired me to obtain a Ph.D. in rehabilitation sciences and to complete two postdoctoral research fellowships, one in pediatric rehabilitation and one in pediatric critical care. My program of research focuses on understanding what functional recovery looks like for children and their families after leaving the PICU and testing music-based interventions to help promote that recovery.

This is just one person’s experience within a very broad field. I’d like to encourage interested readers to explore what other career paths in music therapy may look like. Check out AMTA’s website, find resources and engage in webinars through the Sound Health Network (a Kennedy Center, NIH, and National Arts Endowment collaboration exploring music’s impact on the brain, health, and wellness), follow music therapists on Twitter (I’m on there too: @jarvismtbc), attend a conference, listen to a podcast (I enjoy ‘Instru(mental)’ by Bea Murakami) – there is no shortage of ways to learn!

And on that note (pun absolutely intended), I thank EKF again for this opportunity to share and I thank  ✨you✨ for reading!

Jessica M. Jarvis, Ph.D., MT-BC

Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

University of Pittsburgh