08/07/2014 10:26 BST | Updated 06/09/2014 06:59 BST

What Does It Mean to Be Musical?

"Do I have to be musical to benefit from music therapy?" It's one of the most frequently asked questions about music therapy.

But what does it even mean to be "musical"? Does it mean you can sing in tune or play an instrument by ear? Does it mean you have taken a music lesson as a child?

Actually, we're all musical beings. Every person has a musical child inside. If you don't feel that, it's because you haven't tapped into the part of you yet.

In music therapy a person's musical ability is not important, because music therapy focuses on the "process" rather than the "product." How well you can sing or play an instrument, for instance, is a product of music making. On the other hand, what you gain through the process is the focus of music therapy.

When I first became a music therapist many years ago, I worked with small children between the age of 3 to 5 in a community setting where both typical children and children with disabilities attended during the day. There were about 20 of them in the class. Half of them had disabilities, such as autism and Down Syndrome, while the other half did not.

On the first day I was shocked by what I saw - typical children and children with disabilities played separately in the playground. Typical children played with other typical children, while children with disabilities either played by themselves (especially those with autism spectrum) or played with other children who also had a disability. Even at such a young age kids could tell who was more like them and who was not. I saw very little interaction between the two groups, so I decided to use music to help them interact with each other in a positive way.

I taught them a song called "Sing" from Sesame Street. The expectation was that every child who was verbal had to sing, and those who were non-verbal didn't have to sing. But everyone had to learn to sign. And then, an interesting thing happened.

Ben, who was a smart and verbal child noticed that Ken, a non-verbal child wasn't singing. Ben asked me,

"Why doesn't Ken have to sing and I have to sing?"

I explained to him that Ken didn't have to sing, because he could not. But, Ken could learn to sign like everyone else, so he'd have to do that. To my surprise, Ben understood this immediately, and so did the other children.

Another surprise was that Ken learned to sign faster than any other child. This showed everyone that Ken was intelligent and able to understand things even though he could not speak. Ken helped other children learn how to sign, and in a few months they were all able to sign with the song.

At the end of the year they performed the song at the holiday concert. Did they sound good and sign well together? Yes, they did. But that wasn't the most important thing. What they learned through the process of learning the song was much more valuable than how they performed at the concert.

Children learned that singing and signing was something fun they could do together.

So the goal of music therapy has less to do with the product of music but rather the process. That's why your musical ability will not influence the outcome of therapy. Besides, you are musical. You just may not know it yet.

More from Yumiko Sato Music Therapy Blog:

Hearing is The Last Sense to Go

Music in The Moment of Death

Do People Know When They're Dying?