Understanding Music Therapy Goals

Today I'd like to take you through the process of and explain the what, how, and why of writing music therapy goals. If you are wondering what you should expect from your music therapist when it comes to goal setting, then read on!


Goal writing is one of the most important pieces of the music therapy process.  Our music therapy goals are what set us apart from other skilled music professionals such as music teachers or therapeutic musicians. (I'll be sure to write a post on the difference between a music therapist and a therapeutic musician in the future.)

First we need to understand the purpose of music therapy goals. As a music therapist, our music therapy goals target non-musical skills. What is a non-musical skill? Well, let's compare it with a piano lesson. When I am teaching a piano student I am helping my students learn to read music, learn multiple piano techniques and music theory, and the end goal is to be skilled at playing the piano. Those are all musical skills. When I am facilitating a music therapy session, we might be playing the piano during the session, however, I am not focused on those "musical skills." Instead, I might be helping my client to strengthen fine motor skills or improve executive functioning and motor planning. I might also be accompanying my client during a piano improvisation and supporting their expression of emotions musically. My client may be working through a difficult life transition or challenge and exploring how they can express themselves without using words. So going back to the original question, non-musical skills can be anything that a person might seek out a therapist for.

Here are some more examples of non-musical goals:

  • Decreasing anxiety & depression

  • Improving self-esteem

  • Enhancing expressive and receptive communication

  • Supporting the grieving process

  • Processing a traumatic event

  • Developing coping skills

  • Strengthening fine and gross motor skills

  • Facilitating verbal & non-verbal communication

  • Promoting social relationships

The second important piece of understanding music therapy goals is understanding how individualized the goals are. As individuals, we all come with our unique set of strengths, likes, dislikes, needs and areas that could use improvement. So when I am evaluating an individual in music therapy, I am looking to see what they can do, what they like to do, and what they are really good at. From there I can use those strengths and preferences to address what they need to work on.

Here is an example: If I am working with a child who has delayed gross motor control and difficulty crossing mid-line, but they love drumming, I can give them a mallet and use my paddle drum by moving it around. The motivation to play that drum helps the child unknowingly work on their goals to improve gross motor skills. I might have another child who also has delayed gross motor control, but drumming isn't their favorite. That activity wouldn't really be effective because the child probably wouldn't be motivated to reach for the drum. When I set music therapy goals, I am always checking to make sure they are in alignment with my client's strengths and preferences. Also, whenever possible, I encourage the child, teen or adult to be part of the goal setting process. I believe that we work harder toward goals when we set them for ourselves.

I'm sure by now you have heard the buzzword SMART GOAL, but just in case you haven't, SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable (also sometimes Agreed Upon or Action-Oriented), Relevant (or Realistic), and Time-Bound. This is a good check list of what you should expect from your music therapy goals. Let's see how it applies in a sample music therapy goal using the child I spoke of above who has a delay in gross motor development.

Sample Music Therapy Goal:

Jordan will cross mid-line to make contact with the paddle drum 4 out 5 times during a 30-minute music therapy session by March 2017.

Specific - The goal is specific. Overall, Jordan is working to improve his gross motor skills, but specifically, Jordan is working on crossing mid-line (an important skill because it helps the left and right sides of our brains to communicate with each other).  It is also specific, because I have outlined exactly what Jordan will be doing to work on that goal - he will be reaching to play a paddle drum. I could even make this goal more specific by stating which arm would be doing the reaching. 

Measurable - The goal is measurable. I know that I want Jordan to make contact with the drum across mid-line 80% of the time or 4 out 5 times during the activity. I can easily track Jordan's successes and notate them in my music therapy session note. Later I can report on Jordan's progress.

Achievable - This one is harder to see on paper, but I evaluated Jordan and during my evaluation, I saw him attempt to cross mid-line and reach the drum, and I also saw him make contact one time. For Jordan this is an emerging skill and he's so motivated by the drum that I can use it to help that skill fully emerge. 

Relevant - Right now, this goal is realistic and relevant to Jordan's developmental needs. 

Time-Bound - This goal is time bound in two ways. First, I want Jordan to perform this task during his 30-minute music therapy session. Second, I want Jordan to be performing this task with 80% success by the end of March when I will report on his progress. 

The last thing I want to talk about is the flow of music therapy goals. Sometimes my clients surprise me and reach the goal faster than I expected and sometimes the goal is more challenging for the client than I expected, and I become aware that the goal needs to be adjusted because it is not achievable. Sometimes a relevant goal becomes not relevant. It is important that your music therapist is constantly assessing the your music therapy goals. As individuals, we are always growing and changing and our goals in music therapy should grow and change with us. 

I hope you have a better understanding of music therapy goals! If you still have more questions, we'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or contact me to schedule a free consult.