Dr. Michael Zanders, an LPC and assistant professor of Music Therapy at Texas Woman’s University, began working with the child welfare system some years ago. Many of his recent publications and presentations focus on music therapy with foster care youth. In this AMTA-Pro podcast, Dr. Zanders talks about his work with children and adolescents in the CPS foster system, and he provides an informal, brief review of his qualitative research examining the personal and musical lives of adolescents with foster care experience. This innovative research certainly has implications for music therapy research, theory, and practice for adolescents in foster care, a promising new field of practice for music therapists.


Music Therapy with Foster Care Youth

AMTA-Pro Podcast

Michael L. Zanders, PhD, LPC, MT-BC

Mike Zanders

The qualitative study Dr. Zanders talked about in this AMTA-Pro podcast examined the personal and musical lives of adolescents with foster care experience.  Based on the researcher’s experience, it seemed that foster care adolescents had a different life experience with music than adolescents who were never in foster care.  A structured interview, developed by the researcher, was used with a sample of participants enrolled in out-patient therapy.  Participants were chosen based on three criteria: 1) between the ages of 13-18 years, 2) present or past experience in foster care placements, and 3) willing and able to discuss their lives and musical backgrounds.

Biographical inquiry was the specific method used to gather data on the musical lives of adolescents in foster care and to discern how the musical and personal biographies may have been related to one another.  In this context, a musical biography was defined as the sum total of music experiences a person has had and the various meanings given to them, both in the past and present.  It was assumed that one’s musical life is part of one’s personal biography, which also includes non musical events, experiences, and meanings.  The study was organized according to two basic questions: 1) What music experiences had these adolescents in foster care had throughout their life span, and what meanings had they attached to those experiences, and 2) What relationships could be found between the musical and personal biographies?

Results of the study showed that these adolescents with foster care experience used music consciously and actively in their everyday lives, similar to ways that adolescents with no foster care experience do.  For example, adolescents with and without foster care experience share the same listening habits, music preferences, and how they use music.

The results also showed that the music experiences of these adolescents did affect their life in foster care, and that their life in foster care did affect their overall relationship to music.  In regards to foster care’s influence on an adolescent’s relationship to music, the results showed that when an adolescent had a relationship to music that was shared with a biological family member before foster care, this music relationship ceased when the participant entered foster care.  Also, adolescents generally had a positive relationship with their foster family when involvement with music was encouraged.  Conversely, music influenced the foster care experience of these adolescents.  First, listening to music by oneself tended to increase in frequency and importance when the adolescent did not have a positive relationship or healthy attachment with the foster parent.  Second, formal and active involvement in music (e.g., participating in school or group music, or taking lessons) seemed to be associated with a positive or healthy relationship with the foster family.  Third, adolescents tended to listen to music for personal, psychological reasons, often to cope with the trauma, grief, and loss they continued to encounter throughout their lives.  Implications for music therapy research, theory, and practice were drawn based on the conclusions.


Zanders, M. L. (2012). The personal and musical biographies of adolescents with foster care experience. Qualitative Inquires in Music Therapy, Monograph 3, pp. 71-109.

Zanders, M. L. (2013). Music therapy with foster care youth.  In L. Eyre (Ed.), Guidelines for music therapy practice: Mental health of adolescents and adults, Volume One. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.