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.