Karaoke as a Tool in Music Therapy!?

By Anne Delleman, MusicWorx Intern

When I first started my music therapy internship, I was surprised to see recorded music being used as a tool in music therapy groups. Throughout my music therapy practica, I never once used a recorded song- much less did I revolve a session around karaoke (a commonly used activity using recorded music). At one point I was even firmly on the side of the debate that insisted using live music is what distinguishes us from other types of therapists using recorded music. However, over the course of my internship I have learned ways to implement recorded music creatively in a way that compliments goals and objectives and is informed by my music therapy experiences and education. How can music therapists implement recorded music in a way that doesn’t de-value our position as music therapists? Recorded music can actually be an important tool in our tool-belts.

Here are some tips-and-tricks for using recorded music in your sessions!


How to implement recorded music from a goal-oriented standpoint:

Use as a reward for positive behaviors

In many settings where I work, specifically those where I serve individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, consumers frequently ask to sing along to a specific song. Replying with “If we do a great job for the first 45 minutes we can sing your music for the last five” naturally sets up a reward schedule that the client is motivated to stick to. If open to playing recorded music for this time (in the case you don’t know their preferred song), this reply is always available!

Reading lyrics as an academic skill

When working on reading skills, karaoke (reading lyrics to songs while singing over a recorded backing track) can be an effective and engaging tool. As a music therapist, we can use our training to select music:

  • that is just familiar enough that the consumer knows the melody but not all of the words,
  • that is at an appropriate tempo for their reading level,
  • where the lyrics fall at a natural spoken rhythm, and
  • with enough repetition that it provides an appropriate number of opportunities for success!

Singfit, an app was developed by a music therapist, allows the user to customize the level of support provided by the lyrics and soundtrack in categories such as background music, support singers, and complexity of lyrics.  

Karaoke for social/leadership skills

In large groups motivated by Karaoke/singing along to familiar recorded music, I structure the activity to test social skills such as sharing, acting as a leader, and collaborating. To work on sharing, I will have a small group (2-4) individuals at the mic and ask them to switch or challenge them to switch at certain parts of the song. Making them listen for cues tests cognition, too! To work on leadership, I will give the singer another task such as directing, selecting the next singer/s, or tasking them to select or create a rhythm for the group to play on instruments.

In groups, it allows the therapist time to engage with non-verbal individuals directly.

In groups with large variation in abilities, having another “leader” (karaoke songs), recording or music video providing engagement to the group allows the therapist to give individual attention to individuals with more needs. When a recording is providing the accompaniment the music therapist can do things like provide hand-over hand playing support, drum massages, hold visuals for clients to make selections, or help to mirror/direct movement activities.


So why is the ability to use recorded music as music therapists important?

People WILL request songs that we don’t know, and being able to provide preferred music is important!

Today, the internet allows an increased access to diverse music (the days of the radio and MTV are over), and as a music therapist expecting ourselves to be able to play every song requested by a client is unreasonable. In some situations, such as when a client is reminiscing at end of life, when providing autonomy is a major goal, or when preferred music is critical for engagement (and is not known by the therapist), recorded music can be an important tool! In these situations, technology allows us to pull up preferred music instantly, and then our experience as music therapists allows us to use elements of the music to continue to target goals. By occasionally using recorded music by choice, we can increase our ability to effectively use it in a pinch.

Leading groups all the time is hard on our bodies and voices- sometimes we need a break

When I was leading just one group a week during practicum, using recorded music for an energy break was never an excuse. Now, when I sometimes lead four or more large groups a day, my body and voice can easily become fatigued. Intentionally interspersing recorded music when appropriate can help alleviate the physical strain that occurs when repeatedly singing and playing guitar for large groups. Importantly, we should not consider recorded music as a “break” from being a music therapist, just as a break for our bodies. When we intersperse breaks from singing and playing guitar, we are better able to facilitate when maximum energy and control over all musical elements is necessary.


Tips for using recorded music

When someone requests to hear a song you don’t know and you use a recording, write the song down and learn it!

I frequently have patients request songs that I don’t know, especially when working in hospitals where I see diverse populations of patients with little (or no) time to prep in between. As these sessions are of an impromptu nature, I have learned not to be discouraged when I don’t know someone’s request. Instead, I play a recording and then ask the clients why it means something to them, what it makes them remember, or why they asked to hear it this day. If appropriate, I encourage the patient to play or sing along with the recording. Then, I write the song down and learn it for when it is requested again! Sometimes, if the song is simple enough, I will even attempt (sometimes successfully) to learn it there in the room. Making myself vulnerable in front of a patient by presenting myself as a learner can build rapport and show to the patient how much I care.

Use it as a tool, not a crutch!

If you are planning to use recorded music, it should be intentional and not as a way to decrease planning time or repertoire acquisition. Learning to lead all styles of music is of utmost importance as music therapists(yes, this includes electronic music, metal, and rap!) even though using recorded music as a shortcut is sometimes tempting. As music therapists, we have the ability to weigh the benefits of using recorded music over live music. It is our responsibility to provide live music if we determine it is what will be most effective and we have the time to do so.

If the original recording is necessary to capture engagement, use it and then transition into a live version.

On some occasions the preferred part of a song involves media (music video etc.) or sounds (electronic sounds, duets/choirs) that are not possible to recreate live. Starting with a familiar recorded version of the song can capture engagement before the therapist transitions into a live version that is modified to facilitate goals. For example, an individual might really like the music video to the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”. We can first play the colorful music video to ”Yellow Submarine,” and then use their heightened engagement to re-write the song discussing their own living environment and supports.


Do I have an answer to the debate about whether a music therapist should use recorded music? No…. But am I beginning to see both sides? I suppose so.

After five months of internship, do I think that recorded music can be an effective tool within a music therapy session? Yes, I honestly do. I believe that using recorded music on the spot can be done effectively and that it tests our ability to implement qualities of all types of music, whether familiar or not. I think that we can use recorded music to validate music preferences of our clients when we don’t know the music they request. I believe that we can utilize recorded music to capture engagement and then build upon it. Finally, I believe that in this modern age of technology, ignoring the accessibility of recorded music is disregarding both the independent preferences of our client (as our Spotify playlists are as individual as our fingerprints) while also ignoring the new tools now available to us as music therapists.


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