Friday, November 16, 2007

FAQ: What happens in a music therapy assessment?

I am often asked this question several times a month by teachers and parents. They have children in school with disabilities who have been recommended for a music therapy evaluation, but many of them have not been exposed to music therapy and sometimes do not even know that it exists, especially in their school district. I have always been happy to give them a brief description of what I do when I come to see their child for the music therapy assessment.

Music therapy assessments take many different forms and may include different elements depending on the therapeutic setting. Music therapy in the public schools, for example, is partially governed by state and federal guidelines. It is considered a related service and a music therapist is part of a team of teachers and therapists who work with a student according to an Individual Education Plan (IEP). An Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee must obtain consent from the parent or guardian to ask for a music therapy assessment in order to begin the process.

Music therapy assessment procedures will vary between types of client populations, but there are several key areas that should be considered when conducting any music therapy assessment. An assessment should include a review of the client history, including origin of disabilities, medical or psychosocial issues, current therapeutic strategies and existing goals. The assessment will also gather remarks and observations from teachers, staff, and parents about how they have seen the student respond to music at school or at home. The majority of an assessment should be comprised of a comparison between client responses during music and during regular activities that do not normally include music.

Music therapy assessments in the public school setting require that the evaluator look for significant or unique differences in client performance on specific objectives as described in their IEP. I explain to teachers and parents that the assessment should take place in the client's main classroom or wherever therapy would be conducted. The assessment process including consulting with staff, observation of the client in the classroom, and music activities usually takes from one to two hours. In order to accurately assess a client's responses to the specially developed music activities, the therapist will choose several specific areas of need as described by teachers, parents and the IEP objectives to address during the assessment.

The music therapist should try and observe the client working in the classroom through several different activities. During this time, the therapist can obtain an overall sense of how the client participates with peers and interacts with teachers and work tasks. The therapist will be looking for patterns in expressive and receptive communication, general ability to focus attention and follow directions, and some indication of academic abilities. The client should also be observed working on specific IEP objectives so that data may be collected and used for comparison with data gathered from work during music therapy activities.

The music therapist will conduct a music therapy session with the client that will last twenty to thirty minutes. During this time, the therapist will typically use an acoustic guitar as the primary accompaniment instrument unless a piano or other client preferred instrument are available and more appropriate. Other instruments such as hand drums, shakers, and bells are used throughout the session as both accompaniment and for active engagement with the client. Age appropriate songs and music activities with supportive visual aids will be used to address specific IEP objectives. The music therapy session may be structured similarly to other music therapy sessions which include an opening and closing song along with the specific music activities that were chosen to address the student's IEP objectives. A comparison will be made between the student's behavior and performance in the non-musical setting and the structured music activities. The comparison of data will then determine the significance and/or uniqueness of music strategies in helping the student to make progress on targeted IEP objectives.

This outlines a music therapy assessment process for a child in the public school. The conclusion of the assessment will result in an official recommendation to the ARD committee explaining how the client does or does not require music therapy services in order to make adequate progress on IEP objectives. The ARD committee must take the recommendation under consideration and decide upon the implementation of services and, if approving music therapy, determine the amount of time the student will receive therapy.


  1. This is a great explanation, thanks! What is the difference between music therapy assessment and evaluation. Most literature, groups these together. What is main difference?

  2. Thanks for asking that question, Kara. As far as I am concerned the term can be used interchangeably. I often vary the terms I use for literary variety. It would be very monotonous to use the same term throughout an entire post. There is a difference, however, between a "screening" and an "assessment/evaluation." A screening is done to find out if there is enough evidence of reactions to music to suggest a request for a full assessment. Screenings are not often requested, but I would like to see them become more prevalent.

  3. Is the music therapy assessment tool is different from other psychological test ?

  4. Thank you for the question Dr. Roy. The simple answer is, yes, although there may be some overlap depending on the population being served. There is not a standardized music therapy assessment tool that can be used across different types of populations, but there are tools that can be used successfully in specific settings. One example is the SEMTAP (Special Education Music Therapy Assessment Process) created by Kathleen Coleman, MMT, MT-BC and Betsey Brunk, MMT, MT-BC. For more information on this assessment tool please visit There are other assessment tools available, but the therapeutic setting and goals and objectives are very important in determining the need and efficacy of music therapy for an individual client. In a psychiatric setting, for example, it would be important to evaluate and understand the clinical state of the patient and how it relates to their ability to respond to specially developed music interventions. I hope this information is helpful in understanding the process.

  5. Thank you for sharing this information. I am a mother of 7-year-old girl who are diagnosed with Autism. She is quite responsive to music, and I am now considering music therapy for her. However, the school she is attending does not have music therapy program nor music therapist. I recently found that there is a music school in my neighborhood and they provide music therapy service. I wonder if my daughter can receive music therapy service from the school as a related service under IDEA. I do not know anything about music therapy. So, I am sorry if my question is irrelevant.

  6. I have a 7 year old child with CP, autistic,non verbal and huge developmental delays. He is in a public school but in a special education classroom and is in a regular music class with same age non disabled peers. I observed him in this class and he was just sitting there BORED OUT OF HIS MIND and getting NOTHING out of the class at all. Found info on music therapy and want to ask the school to put this in his IEP instead of a music class he is getting nothing out of at all. It would also help with alot of his other difficulties too but wondered if music therapy is a better option for him where he would actually get something out of it and help him with other issues too.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I am sorry that you have had to struggle to find the right setting for your son. There is no way to know how much benefit he can gain from music therapy without a music therapist doing an assessment. If you feel like he responds in significant ways to music, perhaps by showing greater attention or attempts at receptive or expressive communication, then these are good reasons to ask for an assessment. So the first step is to find a music therapist to do an assessment. If the school district does not have a music therapist on staff or on contract, they can easily find one to do an assessment. My best advice is to be polite, but firm with your request for an assessment. The speech therapist or other therapist that works with him may be a good advocate to help you approach the ARD committee about the request. Please read this post about music therapy assessments ( You can also visit to find music therapists in your area. Keeping him in regular music class is not necessarily a bad thing, but music educators vary widely in their openness, willingness to adapt to children with disabilities, and training to teach children with disabilities. Music education is a completely different focus than music therapy. Sometimes they can have overlapping goals, but they do not replace each other. Good luck, and I hope you will share your experiences with us as you move forward!


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