Making music enriches a special needs child's life in wonderful ways

tour special needs family

Dozens of new studies on the developing brain show dramatic lifelong improvements in language, math, spatial skills, coordination, memory and motor skills by learning to make music.

Caring for a special needs child can be a challenge for parents, teachers, and caretakers. But the rewards can far outweigh those challenges. We are always looking for ways to enrich our children’s lives, which in return enriches our own. Music can help accomplish this and lead to a rewarding experience for the entire family.

While an active approach such as playing an instrument can provide the most benefits, passively listening to music can help as well.

You may have tried to find a music teacher for your son or daughter only to find that most music schools refuse to teach those with certain special needs, such as autism, Down Syndrome and vision impairments. This is sad, and naturally this leaves you frustrated and your child left out. But, there are still many solutions available.

By definition, music therapy is an interpersonal process in which a qualified therapist uses music and all of its facets – physical, emotional, mental, social, aesthetic, and spiritual – to help clients to improve or maintain their health. In some instances, the client’s needs are addressed directly through music; in others they are addressed through the relationships that develop between the client and therapist.

Private piano lessons or software learning methods for example are not by definition music therapy, but the benefits are therapeutic. If your special needs child isn’t showing positive effects by engaging in a music learning program, you may wish to contact a music therapist.

The right hemisphere of the brain is activated when you hear melodies with a variety of pitch and timbre. It also “lights up” when people play music by ear.

The left hemisphere of the brain is activated when you learn to read music. Significantly, the brain is activated in the same area that is involved in analytical and mathematical thinking. So you can simultaneously stimulate the right and left hemispheres of the brain by playing an instrument or singing.

Compelling evidence supporting the clinical benefits of music

1. Behavior
We’ve all experienced bouts of bad behavior with our children – kicking, screaming, etc. Music is mood-enhancing, and children with disabilities often benefit greatly from upbeat, rhythmic music that they can sing or play an instrument. Music helps stimulate senses, focus attention, and redirect self-stimulating behaviors toward socially appropriate behavior.

2. Calming
Anxiety is one of the biggest challenges facing individuals on the autism spectrum. When children with special needs listen to classical music, it provides a positive and relaxing experience. Classical music can also reduce stress and ease frustrations. Furthermore, it can reduce muscle tension and slow the heart rate. When these changes occur, the mind is more open to learning and communicating with others.

One study at the Baltimore St Agnes Health Care by Raymond Bahr, MD showed that when doctors played classical music for their heart patients, it had the same impact as a 10 mg dose of Valium. The implications of this study for those with special needs are clear. When children with autism, cerebral palsy, ADD, ADHD, and mental retardation are able to relax and calm down, dramatic changes in their behavior become possible.

3. Self Expression
Music promotes self-expression and emotional response. Children need opportunities for self-expression and creativeness. They require a “release” for their energies and inner thoughts. Possibilities for self-expression and creativeness through the playing of an instrument are endless.

4. Emotional Response
Playing instruments can stimulate senses and provide emotional fulfillment. It can also be used in a small structured group setting to build interpersonal relationships. For example, songs can be divided into separate parts that necessitate the participation of each individual to successfully bring the song to completion. Many children will feel more comfortable opening up about their feelings when they are exposed to music.

5. Social Interaction
A study by Kim, Wigram, & Gold found that children with autism showed more emotional expression, responded to the therapist’s requests more frequently, and social engagement during music therapy sessions than in play sessions without music. Individuals with autism show equal or superior abilities in pitch processing, labeling of emotions in music, and musical preference when compared to peers not exposed to music participation. A skilled therapist can use music with children to increase their social interaction and improve social skills. Passing and sharing instruments, music and movement games, gathering around a central instrument, learning to listen and singing of greetings are just a few of the ways music therapy sessions can increase interaction.

6. Communication and Language Skills
Music improves two-way communication: Music can help build social skills and encourage peer interaction and conversation. Children who are musically trained are better at observing pitch changes in speech and have a better vocabulary and reading ability than children who did not receive music training. Learning and mastering a musical instrument improves the way the brain breaks down and understands human language, making music students more apt to pick up a second language.

7. I.Q.
Music lessons may not only teach your child how to carry a tune, they may also boost their I.Q. Children who study a musical instrument are more likely to excel in all of their studies, work better in teams, have enhanced critical thinking skills, stay in school, and pursue further education.

A study explored the impact of a music enrichment program on evaluative test scores in developmentally disabled children. Twenty children were given the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and evaluated for the Trainable Mentally Retarded (TMR) Performance Profile, both pretest and post-test. Between the two tests, 10 of the children were assigned to attend 36 forty-minute music sessions, 2 each week for 18 weeks. The other 10 children had little music involvement in the classroom, if any. The study revealed a significant increase in test scores for basic knowledge, communication, and social behavior in both groups.

8. Memory
Students of all ages generally find that music helps them focus more clearly on the task at hand and puts them in a better mood for learning. Music learning is a creative output. Children learn to memorize songs, or parts of songs in a manner that keeps the brain stimulated, and through repetition, thus improving memory skills.

9. Self-confidence / Self-esteem
Children with special needs often run into difficulty with self-esteem when they begin to realize that they are different from their peers. Sometimes this comes in the form of bullying whereby the child is told he or she essentially does not belong to the group and is not wanted. Sometimes this comes from the child him or herself identifying how different he or she is, and the child starts to isolate him or herself from the group out of fear of not belonging. Both of these scenarios create the feeling of unworthiness and thus hinder self-esteem.

Music is a wonderful way to address the many needs of children because music is nonjudgmental. There is no right or wrong, it just is what it is. Listening to different types of music nurtures self-esteem and encourages creativity, self-confidence, and curiosity.

10 Motor Skills
Many children with special needs have challenges with their fine motor skills. Therefore, it is important to incorporate fine motor skills activities for special needs children in their daily routine. Playing an instrument helps teach a child muscle coordination, dexterity, rhythm, cause and effect, and improves fine and gross motor skills.

Special education band and orchestra tips

Buddy Assignment / Peer Pairing
Assigning another student to count along or track measures by finger helps a special learner to keep pace as well as experience peer inclusion.

Class Choice
Consider all possible tiered music ensembles available at a school before integrating a special learner in band or orchestra class. Some classes may cater to beginners while other more advanced ensembles focus on competition performance.

Color Coding
Visual information helps special learners. Color-coding software can render sheet music in which a certain note, middle C for example, displays in the color red. Placing strips of laminated red paper over the middle-C bar or key on the glockenspiel, marimba, piano, or xylophone helps special learners to recognize and associate like notes from sheet music to instrument.

When a special learner experiences difficulty with a certain passage, highlight the passage on the sheet music to help the learner track the information more easily.

Instrument Selection
In general, non-melodic instruments, such as a bass drum, crash cymbals, or suspended cymbals, are good choices for special learners. Learners with fine motor movement difficulty should avoid attempting instruments that require digital dexterity, such as the trumpet, flute, or clarinet. Learners with gross motor movement difficulty should avoid attempting instruments that require full-arm dexterity, such as the trombone or timpani.

Patterns of letters, ideas, or associations assist the brain in remembering. For example, the alphabet is easier to process when a learner can associate groups of letters to a melodic and rhythmic cue. Transferring this to musical instruction, accompany new information with a simple melody without skips.

Adding movement to music accesses different parts of the brain and gives more information to special learners. Foot- or hand-tapping also primes muscles for movement. Ask the learner to stomp to quarter notes and clap to half notes.

Give special learners a compact disc of recorded music, or download a digital music file to a playing device for use during practice sessions.

Simplified Instruction
Typical instruction: “Decrescendo in measure 16.”
Simplified instruction: “Stay quiet when the oohs come in.”

Warming up primes a learner’s brain for learning. Strong slow rhythmic cues are best. Add fun and challenge to warm-up exercises for typical learners by asking them to create new rhythms.

Adapting Musical Instruments

Sometimes instruments and other musical items need to be adapted so they can be used easily by a student with a physical disability. Here are suggestions.

Adding a piece of sponge wrapped around a handle of an instrument (such as a tone block handle or a xylophone beater) to increase the grip size.

Mounting an instrument onto a flat board so it remains still, or clamping it to a table top.

Adding a circle of soft elastic to a handle of an instrument so it is not lost by a student who has trouble maintaining a strong hand grip.

Using a nail brush to act as a holder to keep a piece of music upright (laminate the page first to give it the necessary stiffness; otherwise it will fall over)--This can be placed on a wheelchair tray or table top so it can be seen while playing an instrument.


Although special learners may learn differently, we as teachers also have the creativity to teach differently and think outside the box in order to give students with an interest in music a chance to be a part of their peer group.

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