As a Music Therapist, I (along with many others, I’m sure) often hear the following question: “So, what do you do? Do you teach music to your clients?” And while Music Therapy most often looks different than what would be called a “music lesson”, there are certainly situations in which the teaching of a new instrument within a therapeutic relationship can be immensely beneficial. On the other hand, when I tell people that I do also teach “adapted piano lessons”, I receive another logical question: “What does that mean?” And once again, you may find therapeutic elements within an Adapted Lesson, especially when taught by a Board-Certified Music Therapist. Where, then, is the line? How do you decide whether what’s taking place is a lesson or a therapy session? The confusion is understandable. Hence, this blog post! My hope is to offer a quick and simple explanation of the differences between Adapted Lessons and Music Therapy. Ready?

The easiest way to differentiate between Adapted Lessons and Music Therapy (in my mind) is to take a look at your primary goal, and what I like to call “bonus prizes” – secondary effects, also beneficial, that may result from (and aid the process of) working toward said primary goal.

In Adapted Lessons, the Primary Goal is musical.
For example: “I want to learn how to play the piano.”
The “bonus prizes” are non-musical, and may include: improved cognitive functioning, improved fine motor skills, increased self-esteem, increased focus and sustained attention, etc.

In Music Therapy, the Primary Goal(s) is (are) non-musical.
For example: “I want to improve fine motor skills [perhaps for a client with Parkinson’s Disease], thereby enhancing my overall quality of life.”
The “bonus prizes” are musical, and may include: learning to play piano or guitar in the pursuit of practicing fine motor skills, learning to read music, etc.

One more thing to mention: Why the word “adapted”? An adapted piano lesson, as we’ve just discussed, has the same primary goal as any other piano lesson: to teach the student how to play the piano! The word “adapted” simply indicates that the curriculum – the repertoire, the teaching methods, the style of written music, etc. – has been “adapted” to suit the needs of the student. Maybe the student has autism, quickly becomes overstimulated, and could really use a dance break every 5 minutes. Maybe the student has a physical disability that requires repertoire to suit his or her capabilities (no octaves, for example). Whatever the case, the teacher incorporates adaptations to help each individual learn. Does that sound like what any piano teacher would do with a wide variety of students? It should! Teachers do this all the time with their typically developing students! Music Therapists are often preferred for Adapted Lessons, though, simply due to training and experience with a range of disabilities and needs, as well as an understanding of how music affects the brain and the body. Think of it like the difference between a Third Grade teacher who recognizes and responds to the learning styles of each student, and a Special Education teacher who has a specialty in particular styles of learning regarding intellectual and developmental disabilities.

So… Adapted Lessons vs. Music Therapy.
Hopefully the difference is starting to become clear in your mind, but let’s go through a few examples, just to practice!

1) Johnny is a bright young boy with down syndrome who loves music. He has expressed interest in the guitar, and regularly asks his mom if he can learn. Johnny’s mom has reached out to a Music Therapist.
Which are we looking at here? Music Therapy or Adapted Lessons?
… if you said Adapted Lessons, that’s right! Johnny’s primary goal is to learn the guitar. The curriculum may need to be adapted due to the physical and cognitive characteristics of down syndrome, as well as Johnny’s individual preferences and learning style.

2) Claire is a bright young girl with autism who loves music. Her mom has noticed that, although Claire rarely speaks using more than one- or two-word phrases, she will sing along to an entire song on the radio. Claire’s mom has reached out to a Music Therapist.
Which are we looking at here? Music Therapy or Adapted Lessons?
… if you said Music Therapy, that’s right! Claire’s primary goal is to increase communication. Lots of singing will be done in her music therapy sessions, but these are not “voice lessons” – singing will be used as a vehicle to promote communication outside of music. Whether or not Claire sings with correct pitch is irrelevant!

Make sense? I hope so! If you ever get confused between Music Therapy and Adapted Lessons, just look for that Primary Goal!

This has been a message from your friendly neighborhood Music Therapist.