URI to launch cutting-edge music therapy major in fall 2020

New degree combines mastery of music and health sciences to help patients in myriad ways

KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 8, 2019 – Benefiting from decades of research in the field, the University of Rhode Island’s College of Arts and Sciences will launch a rigorous music therapy undergraduate degree in the 2020-21 academic year – making URI the first public college or university in New England to offer a bachelor’s degree in the field.

The five-year Bachelor of Music in music therapy degree is a health-based program, grounded in neuroscientific research, which will provide students with the expertise in music and the health sciences necessary to help patients with numerous health challenges.

“This will be one of the premier programs at URI, teaching some of the university’s top students,” said Mark Conley, chair of the Department of Music. “Our curriculum is state of the art, benefiting from decades of knowledge and research in music therapy, along with the input from departments across the University.”

“The University of Rhode Island is primed for an innovative music therapy degree that enhances the interdisciplinary approach already taking place at the University,” added Nicole O’Malley, currently an adjunct professor and a licensed neurological musical therapist who helped develop the new degree program. “The music therapy program will allow for astounding collaborations and the potential for research across the University.”

The new program combines music, health sciences and clinical training to prepare students for national certification. Coursework covers foundational musical studies – such as theory, composition, history, and training in piano, guitar and voice – along with work in psychology, kinesiology, and anatomy. Along the way, music therapy courses will tie together the music and sciences, training students in such areas as medical and developmental populations, and patient assessment and treatment planning. Along with the coursework, students are required to complete 1,200 hours of direct clinical work.

The program, which follows the education and clinical requirements of the American Music Therapy Association, is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. Currently, there are about 8,000 board certified music therapists in the U.S., according to the association. Bachelor degree programs, or the equivalent, are offered at about 70 institutions across the country, according the group’s website.

While music therapy has been an established health profession for more than 70 years, there are still misconceptions about the work music therapists do and the demanding training and certification required to work in the field. Music therapists are much more than musicians who play for residents at assisted-living centers or in the lobby of hospitals.

“Music therapists use music-informed interventions to accomplish non-music goals,” explained O’Malley, a 16-year therapist and executive director of Hands in Harmony, in Kingston, Rhode Island. “We work on goals that are cognitive, communicative, sensorimotor, social, emotional, but we use music – what music does in the brain – to accomplish those goals.”

O’Malley, who earned a master’s degree in music therapy from the Berklee College of Music and a bachelor’s degree in music from Anna Maria College, founded Hands in Harmony in 2003. The practice annually treats more than 2,000 patients with such conditions as autism, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, chronic pain, and mental-health challenges, including substance-use disorder.

“Because music happens in different parts of the brain, it activates different neurological systems and it allows us to accomplish goals in an unexpected way – and in a preferred way,” said O’Malley. “Music is something we’re born with, so we’re taking something innate, something that is preferred for the majority of the population, and adding a targeted intervention. We’re using something the patient can already do to train things that they need to know.”

Many patients with aphasia – the loss of the ability to understand or express language caused by stroke, traumatic brain injury, or neurodegenerative disease – have been able to regain speech through music interventions such as singing, which is controlled by a part of the brain separate from the area that controls language.

Music therapy, as part of regular treatment, has helped children with medical and/or developmental conditions reach developmental milestones. For people with Parkinson’s disease, cognitive impairment or other related dementias, music can spark the part of the brain that regulates emotion and may improve quality of life while also alleviating other symptoms. Many people with mobility issues caused by stroke or traumatic brain injury are able to regain the ability to walk through rhythmic auditory stimulation gait training, an intervention that uses auditory cues to help time a person’s steps.

The catalyst for the URI program came in fall 2016 when Conley was contacted by a hospital erroneously seeking “music therapists” to play at the hospital. Conley explained what music therapists actually do and said it would take the University awhile to start such a program. But it got him thinking. His research into the field led him to O’Malley, who was chair of the Rhode Island music therapy task force that successfully advocated for state licensure recognizing music therapists’ national certification at the state level.

In helping to create the curriculum, O’Malley met with faculty in numerous programs across the University, such as pharmacy, engineering, physical therapy, nursing and the Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, to shape the curriculum. “The music therapy degree was created using the strengths and established models at URI,” she said, “making the degree program unique and innovative with the potential to contribute to the growth of the field of music therapy on the national level.”

Opening in fall 2020, the new program is expecting a first-year class of about 20 students, Conley says. To be accepted into the program, incoming first-year students will be required to pass a performance audition in their primary instrument. Auditions will begin in December 2019 and run through April 2020. Students are advised to audition early as entrance in the program is expected to be competitive.