Challenging Behaviors in Music Therapy

When I began studying music therapy in 1969, I felt certain world peace could be achieved through music. It seemed reasonable to expect conflict between individuals and nations to vanish if only we could engage everyone in making music in perfect harmony. As I started my music therapy internship, I believed the same musical magic would transform teens living in a residential program for youngsters with significant emotional issues into cooperative, friendly team players. When one of those teenagers rejected the offer to play the electric guitar and, instead, threw a chair at a window, my unsubstantiated belief in the miraculous powers of music shattered along with the window.

In a public school early childhood class the next week, a cute little four-year-old threw her maraca at another student and spit in my face while I was singing a newly composed song designed to convince her to play nicely with her classmates. The enticing melody and clever lyrics did not work the magic I had anticipated. More than four decades later, I still receive reminders that music therapy involves much more than simply listening to or making music. Just last week in his music therapy group at school, a non-verbal young man with autism whom I’ve known for over fifteen years unexpectedly shouted loudly before striking two of his friends, throwing a guitar to the ground, and lunging out the door. We have not yet determined what triggered the outburst from the normally cooperative, friendly young man, but we will continue searching for clues.

Although daily observations over the decades help me understand that music does not magically transform or cure people, I do see music making a real difference by being a factor in grabbing attention, encouraging participation, building personal connections, aiding memory, sparking physical action, altering physical and emotional health, motivating cooperation, setting the stage for accomplishment, and otherwise impacting attitudes and actions in music therapy and in everyday life.

Music occurs naturally in our environment, and the diversity of music gives therapists many tools to utilize during therapy sessions. Because the individuals I see in music therapy are often dealing with serious situations, on-going challenges, and/or significant disabilities, I cannot just make everything better by playing soothing music in the background or getting people involved in a rocking jam session. But, as a music therapist, I can use music as a catalyst and a tool to draw people into therapy, to develop relationships with individuals through active music-making, and to draw their attention to and help them cooperate with systematic, practical strategies for enhancing their strengths, compensating for their deficits, and developing new skills that impact their daily lives. I can also use music to set up a pleasant, supportive therapeutic environment that helps individuals with challenging behavior issues feel welcome and encouraged.

Because disruptive, hurtful, and challenging behaviors can occur no matter how calming and supportive the therapeutic environment, music therapists might find it helpful to sharpen their behavior management skills and to know how to develop effective, pro-active plans for preventing serious issues and for dealing with emergency situations. Our Challenging Behaviors Toolbox is a step-by-step guide for developing and fine-tuning competence in dealing with difficult situations that might occur in group or individual therapy.

Our basic approach to self-study e-courses at is to provide a wealth of tips and ideas that have worked for Dellinda and I in diverse music therapy settings since 1973, and to encourage each e-course participant to adapt those ideas to their own unique setting and philosophy of music therapy. Our Challenging Behaviors Toolbox is not a “recipe for success,” but rather a basic framework and collection of field-tested strategies from which to choose when facing challenging behaviors.

We welcome your stories, your ideas, your strategies and interventions, and your questions about challenging behaviors in music therapy. Feel free to send me an email. <>