5 Ways To Use Creative Arts in Music Therapy

As music therapists, we value creative expression as a tool to meet specific clinical needs such as emotion regulation, enhancing coping skills, improving communication, anxiety/pain management, and cognitive stimulation. Our voices and musical instruments are our primary modalities…but have you ever thought about incorporating visual arts into your practice?

Visual art, like music, is multisensory and expressive. Paired with music-based interventions, creative arts can enhance the therapeutic relationship, and help you meet client needs in new ways! 

Here are FIVE creative ways that you can incorporate visual art into your music therapy sessions.

1. Musical Painting

Music is evocative and expressive. It can inspire creative visual expression! With this exercise, you will use different selections of recorded music to paint or draw to. You can use this intervention with groups or individuals

Therapeutic goals:
  • relaxation, attention to task, emotional expression, coping skills
  • Creative arts supplies (paints, crayons, markers, etc.)
  • Blank paper or canvas (depends on what color mediums you want to use); 1 sheet for each piece of music you play
  • Bluetooth speaker or amp
  • Music streaming device
  1. Introduce exercise:
    • “We will be listening to a selection of recorded music today, and noticing our reactions to the music.”
    • “As you listen to each piece, draw or paint on your piece of paper whatever comes to mind. The music may inspire an image, colors, or types of strokes.”
    • “You can feel free to paint a specific object or place, or complete an abstract expression.”
  2. Play different selections of recorded music. I usually like to pick three contrasting pieces. Here are my top musical selections.
  3. Following the visual portion, have each person share their art with the group.
  4. Facilitate discussion with individual/group participants.
    • “What did you notice during this exercise?”
    • “What about the music inspired your creation?”
    • “How are your pieces different/similar?” 


2. Drum Circle Community Mandala

This group exercise is great for talking about the idea of “support.” As you facilitate a drum circle, one-by-one each group member will add something to a large mandala in the middle of the room. Using mandalas in the group setting can be powerful. They can foster a sense of community and connectedness.

Therapeutic Goals:
  • group cohesion, social interaction/support, emotional expression, attention-to-task, turn taking
  • Chairs
  • Instruments for your drum circle
  • Large white poster paper with circle outline
  • Assorted color medium of your choice (pastels, markers, crayons, colored pencils, etc.)
  1. Set up room with chairs in a circle, and the large blank mandala in the middle on the floor or on a table. Place colors in the middle and a drum or auxiliary instrument on each chair.
  2. Introduce group to the drums, and concept of visual arts. 
    • “As we drum, one person at a time will add to our group mandala. Feel free to use any colors provided.”
    • “There’s no wrong way to create! Allow the rhythm to inspire images, lines.”
  3. Begin facilitating drum circle.
  4. Once there’s a steady “groove,” prompt one person to add to the mandala. Make sure the rest of the group keeps drumming throughout.
  5. When one participant is finished, have them return to the drum circle, and cue the next person to add to the mandala.
  6. After everyone has finished, close out the drumming and prompt some discussion
    • “How was this experience for you?” “What was it like to draw with the support of the drumming?
    • “What do you notice about the interaction between the rhythm and art?”
    • “How does this mandala represent this group?”


3. Guided Imagery Painting

This exercise can be used in a group or individual setting. Facilitate a music-assisted guided imagery or sensory relaxation, and prompt the participant(s) to re-create on paper what they saw/experienced.

Therapeutic goals:
  • relaxation, pain/anxiety management, emotional expression, coping skills
  • 8.5×11 sheet of blank drawing paper
  • Color medium of your choice (pastels, markers, crayons, colored pencils, etc.)
  • Accompanying instrument (guitar, piano, HAPI drum, harp, recorded music, etc.)
  1. Introduce exercise: 
    • “With this music and art exercise, I am going to guide you through a guided relaxation with music. We will walk through the five senses, and imagine a place that is peaceful for you.”
    • “If something is triggering at any point, please feel free to leave the room, or ask to finish the exercise.”
  2. Facilitate music-assisted relaxation with soothing instrumental accompaniment. Provide prompts for participants to become aware of each sense, and what they would experience in this “peaceful place.” Give instrumental breaks in between each “sense.”
  3. For group sessions, use very general prompts, not specific to any place.
    • E.g. “Ignite your sense of touch…in your own peaceful place, what do you feel? Notice the quality of the air on your skin…warm…cool…or hot. How does the ground feel beneath your feet?”
  4. For individual sessions, feel free to personalize it. Before the guided relaxation, have them discuss and describe their “peaceful place.” Use the participant’s description to inform your relaxation.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Music assisted imagery experiences can be very triggering for some people. This is nor recommended to use with individuals who suffer from conditions of severe cognitive impairment or dissociative states such as schizophrenia. With individuals who suffer from trauma or post traumatic stress, utilize this exercise ONLY if you are experienced with that population, have strong rapport with your clients, and are certain that this exercise aligns with their therapeutic objectives.


4. DIY Instruments

DIY or “do-it-yourself” instruments are a great way to instill a sense of accomplishment and ignite creativity. Also, your clients can take their instruments home, so they can continue making music!

Therapeutic goals:
  • increase autonomy, self-esteem, group cohesion, turn-taking, attention to task
  • You can use any found objects or household items such as toilet paper rolls, rice, water bottles, etc.

Check out our Pinterest board for creative ideas on DIY instruments


5. Album Art

This project can help break the ice in a group and works as a good segue into songwriting. Have your clients create their own original “album art,” and use it as a starting point for songwriting.

Therapeutic goals:
  • social interaction, group cohesion, communication, emotional expression, coping skills
  1. Introduce project.
    “What is your favorite music album of all time? Today, we will be creating our own album art! You’ll come up with your own original artist name, choose a genre, and describe the type of music.”
  2. Pass out album art template and art supplies.
  3. Instruct participants to create an original album cover. It should not be an artist/album that already exists! Ask each participant to describe:
    • Artist Name
    • Album Title
    • What the music sounds like
    • What the music is about
  4. After everyone has finished, prompt each individual to share their album art with the group.

BONUS: Use the album art as a starting point for songwriting! Here’s some prompts to get started: “What is this album about?” “What message do you want the song to convey?”


For even more intervention ideas, check out our Strategies and Techniques for Relaxation and Creative Arts Experiences toolbox!


Originally posted on on August 14th, 2019.


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