“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,” William Congreve wrote as the first line to his 1697 play The Mourning Bride.
It’s a nice thought, and if you’re considering music therapy as a career, it can ring true. And in any case, we can’t deny William’s meditation on the matter, considering it was coined in the late 17th century and is still a well-known line (though often misquoted, supplanting the word “breast” for “beast” but never mind, the meaning remains the same).
The thing is, if you really want to put your money where your musical abilities and love of humankind are, and if your dream of becoming a professional musician didn’t pan out (and you want out of your parents’ basement), we may have the job for you: musical therapist.
So...what is it exactly? It’s pretty much what it sounds like: Helping people with all sorts of disabilities, problems and issues get better through music. (Remember being an adolescent? You may very well still be one. In either case, you know how much music helped—or is helping—you get through such a confusing time.)
Formal music therapy is a bit different but it works on opening the same neural, emotional and physical pathways that simply listening to an awesome tune does. Lots of different areas of the brain (and breast, apparently) are activated by music, and music can help any number of folks in many different ways accomplish their individual goals. A few examples:
• Because music can be motivating and calming at the same time, it can help children with physical, behavioral, social, psychological or motor issues. Music can get them out of their own heads (an issue with lots of kids on the autistic spectrum) and learn to express themselves outwardly and eventually develop relationships.
• With people in prison (or perhaps a halfway house), music can aid in the emotional, social, communicative and even spiritual issues these folks have, making their transition back into society easier.
• It’s been proven that music can help medical patients manage their chronic pain and headaches as well as help them manage diabetes, cardiac issues and more.
• Sometimes, people who can’t speak, due to some accident or malformation of the brain, can actually sing. Did you see the film The King’s Speech? Even if his therapist, Lionel Logue, didn’t specifically call himself a musical therapist, King George VI was able to get past his stuttering issue by sometimes by singing instead.
• And Remember Gabrielle Giffords, the Congresswoman from Arizona who was shot through the left side of her brain in January of 2011 by some idiot who wasn’t even sure what his beef was with her? She spent the good part of six months learning to speak again by first learning to sing again. Imagine the satisfaction her music therapist must have felt during Giffords’ amazing recovery (still in progress, no doubt).
As you can see, being a music therapist has its rewards. But it’s not easy. You’ll get people who don’t believe in it. You’ll have to come up with the dreaded “So what do you do?” question that’s—without fail—asked first at any party.
So YOU’VE got to believe in it. Find a mentor, watch it in practice, and if what you see and experience feels good to you...consider it as a career. You may find you have a real knack for helping people with music, something you already love. And remember how successful the Pied Piper of Hamelin was? (Oh wait. He had a different sort of career involving rats first, and it’s not a career we cover here...yet.)