How to become a music therapist

We quiz Marianne Rizkallah from North London Music Therapy on how to launch a career in the sector...


Working in music therapy is a career option open to many of our students. 

The job sees music used psychologically to support those those in need of various forms of care. Earlier in the year, Marianne Rizkallah, Vice-Chair of the British Association for Music Therapy, visited ICMP to lead a session on music therapy. As a music therapist, Marianne has worked with a range of clinical groups and age ranges and balances this with projects as a professional singer and musician. 

We caught up with Marianne to learn more about the sector, her work and key advice for anyone wanting to launch a career in music therapy...

For anyone wondering what the role of a music therapist is, could you give some detail?

Music therapists work psychologically, using music as a form of expression for people who either don’t have language or can’t find the right words to communicate their needs and challenges.

We work in the NHS, community settings, schools, hospices, prisons, privately and with organisations. Our client groups are really varied too, anything from mental health to autism, learning disabilities, brain injury or dementia.

What led you to the sector in the first place? Could you talk about your journey?

Someone in my family had had a very positive experience with music therapy and it made me wonder whether I might like to try it. I knew I wanted to be in the music industry in some form, either as a music therapist or a composer. What attracted me to music therapy was the freedom to improvise and be creative every day - and the fact there are salaried jobs!


What would you advise anyone looking to take up a career in this area?

Listen to as much music as possible, and spend time making music with as many people from as different backgrounds as you can. 

Music making and music therapy is all about building relationships, so cultivating your curiosity about music and people - and about yourself - is the best and most fun thing you can do."

Are there any particular qualifications an aspiring music therapist should look to acquire? What is a typical route into these careers?

To work as a music therapist, you must have completed a two-year full time Masters course at one of the accredited training providers in the UK. This is so you can register with the Health and Care Professions Council and use the protected title of 'Music Therapist'. Most music therapists gain entry onto a training course having completed a degree, usually in music (not necessarily classical music though!) or with a relevant degree if you have a high standard in at least one instrument or voice.

Music therapy takes in different age groups and work with different clinical groups too - are there different ways you need to approach each? Or are there common approaches you can use for each group/demographic?

There are different theoretical approaches you’re taught in training, and it’s up to you as a clinical professional to use your best judgement to work out what works best for whom. Whoever you’re with in the room, you’ll be able to discover the most about them through the music they bring to the session - whether it’s improvised or it’s a song they know and love.

What are the biggest challenges with working as a music therapist?

Therapy is emotional work. Finding out the full story about someone’s challenging or traumatic circumstances can be a lot to handle on your own."

It’s really important that therapists have regular supervision - and I find regularly checking in with my colleagues and my own therapist helps keep my emotions in check.

Are there any key attributes or characteristics a successful music therapist needs to hone?

A mature personality, self-awareness, great musical skills including the ability to improvise - and a sense of humour! Having your own psychotherapy is a required part of the training too; you might want to think about finding a psychotherapist that works for you before your course begins. 


What have been the highlights of your career in music therapy?

Founding my own business, which provided me the opportunity to specialise in working with mental health - particularly anxiety and trauma, which I’m most interested in. I’m also really proud of a brilliant short term project I completed for the Guildhall, where we set up pilot provision for music therapy in a school for deaf children in Lebanon. I have family there and I’d love to go back to Lebanon (when it’s safe to travel!) to set up further projects.

What are the latest trends and developments within the music therapy sector? Are there any recent changes that aspiring music therapists should be aware of?

Covid-19 has changed the landscape entirely. We are expecting a surge in mental health reports in people of all ages from all backgrounds, especially as lockdown begins to lift and 'normality' returns in some form."

We’re also starting to properly consider the long overdue issue of how to improve diversity among music therapy trainees. White, middle class therapists are over-represented in the profession; we need to identify, and eradicate, the barriers that mean therapists from non-white, working class backgrounds aren’t training as music therapists.

What has been keeping you busy? And what does the future have in store for you?

Most of my time is spent growing North London Music Therapy. We’ve managed to retain all our service users by moving everyone to remote music therapy, and we’ve taken new clients on too. It’s really exciting being on the forefront of new ways of working!

I also spend lots of time keeping in touch with other music therapists - I’m the Vice-Chair for the British Association for Music Therapy and part of my job is listening to member queries or concerns and finding innovative ways to respond to them. For example, we’re setting up a working group to specifically look at intersectional diversity across music therapy in the wake of #blacklivesmatter - we think the issues are systemic and start with music being squeezed out of the school curriculum - so we’ve got lots of work to do.

Visit to find out more.

Photo credit (banner image): Christopher Bethell

Photo credit (article images): Ian Bozic/

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by Jim Ottewill
June 18, 2020
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