High school harpists are not criminals

January 19, 2023 | By CALEB TROTTER
Girl playing harp

Colorado high school sophomore Taryn Petruncola has played the harp since she was six years old. Aside from the joy that playing the harp brings Taryn, she also enjoys helping others. Through the years, she’s played for nursing homes and even during a family member’s funeral.

As part of a business class that Taryn recently took at a local community college, she was assigned to create a business plan. That’s when the idea sprung to combine her love for playing the harp with the joy of helping people. And like countless entrepreneurs before her, Taryn wanted her business plan to be more than an academic exercise.

Now, through Soothing Strings, Taryn offers her harp talents to senior living homes and families with loved ones in hospice and hospitals to provide a form of music therapy.

Unfortunately, not all Coloradans see Taryn’s efforts as heartwarming and inspiring. If you ask board-certified music therapists, Taryn might even be a criminal.

Cracking down on music therapy

In 2022, a group of board-certified music therapists successfully lobbied the Colorado legislature to pass a bill that would criminalize Taryn’s efforts, should she call herself a music therapist in the course of growing her fledgling business. Had Governor Jared Polis not vetoed the bill, it would have made representing oneself as a music therapist a misdemeanor and deceptive trade practice under Colorado’s Consumer Protection Act, unless the person held an active music therapist board-certified (MT-BC) credential from the private Certification Board for Music Therapists.

Colorado is not alone. Connecticut, Iowa, and Virginia recently enacted laws policing use of the term “music therapist,” and at least ten other states now require burdensome state licensure before one may practice music therapy.

Why the need to police the use of the term “music therapist” and restrict who may practice?

According to the certification board, legislation is necessary to ensure music therapy is practiced only by those holding the MT-BC credential. In other words, they want to monopolize the practice and its associated terms.

Using the law to limit the practice of music therapy and who can call themselves a “music therapist” risks limiting the availability of in-demand services while reserving favored terms for only one (and the most expensive) form of those services.

For example, the American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “the clinical & evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” But ask any random individual around town (perhaps someone engaging in a little retail therapy) what music therapy is, and it’s likely they would simply suggest that it’s listening to or playing music to make yourself feel better.

While the more intensive form is certainly important and valuable to people who need it, the more basic form is what people like Taryn seek to provide.

You shouldn’t need a license to play music for the elderly

Courts are skeptical of the government restricting use of language to limit options for the public and opportunities for those wishing to provide those options. In one Texas case, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that using the term “interior designer” in a professional capacity “merely described a person’s trade or business.” And because there was no evidence that anyone was inherently misled into believing someone was falsely claiming to be a licensed interior designer, rather than merely describing their work, reserving use of the term to only licensed interior designers was a free speech violation.

The same is true in Taryn’s situation. She’s not trying to trick unsuspecting nursing homes into thinking she—a high school student—is providing the services of a board-certified, college-educated music therapist. She just wants to play soothing and relaxing harp music for the elderly and infirm.

Perhaps state measures restricting music therapy and titles would make sense if it was necessary to protect members of the public from harm. But according to Vermont’s Office of Professional Regulation—no bastion of libertarianism—any alleged medical and privacy harms from music therapy performed by non-MT-BCs were “speculative, remote, and can be prevented by other means [than licensure].” A Colorado commission came to a similar conclusion.

Without evidence that unlicensed music therapy harms anyone, there is no justification for legislation that restricts the practice. And because existing laws already address fraudulent misrepresentations, there is no need to additionally police use of the general music therapist title. Only by recognizing that there are multiple forms of music therapy sought by the public, and by leaving individuals free to provide those forms without unnecessary, expensive, and burdensome licensure requirements, will music therapy flourish in Colorado and beyond.