Seven for using music in therapy and education

Remember: Music is Individual. Every person responds to music differently, and any one person may respond to music differently at various times throughout his or her life. Aside from some recent research on rhythm and movement, there are no peer-reviewed, published studies that show universal effects for any particular kind of music or harmony. An adolescent may show all the physiological signs of relaxation while listening to the loudest, most raucous music you can imagine. A child with a severe developmental disability may demonstrate his best responses to opera. Assessment is, therefore, critical. Ask your students/clients/patients what they prefer, but also observe the effects of various types of music. Something might happen that neither of you expect!

Use Silence. Once we know a piece of music, we notice when it is interrupted. You can use unexpected pauses in music to regain attention that has wandered. Once a person's attention is refocused, you can resume exactly where you left off -- like the pause button on a CD player. No verbal cues are necessary, just silence. This can be a relief for both the client/patient and the caregiver, who may both be tired of the same prompts.

Make Sure the Lyrics Fit The Music. When you are using songs to teach academic concepts or language acquisition/reacquisition, be sure that the words and phrases in the song are pronounced as they would be in speech. Often, when songs are "piggybacked" (new words with a familiar melody) the words get distorted -- with emphases on the wrong syllables, or awkward inflections. Many children with special needs learn speech through singing; if they learn to pronounce words incorrectly, it may take a long time to unlearn.

Use Quality Instruments. Rather than buying a "bargain" box filled with instruments that have a bad sound quality as well as being breakable (or even dangerous), choose a few high-quality instruments (a group can share and take turns). We recommend a paddle drum, a wooden clatterpillar, a small cabasa, a transparent rainstick, and some shaker eggs to start (see our recommendations page). All are visually interesting, appropriate for adults as well as children, and have unique, intriguing sounds.

Use Music With Discretion. Do you hear your refrigerator buzzing? Most of us don't -- because we've gotten so used to it, we block it out. If music is an effective tool, use it when you most need it. Playing music all day won't make children smarter; it will just teach them to tune it out. Likewise, playing music for patients who have limited responses (i.e. late-stage Alzheimer's, coma) can be important, but if it's on in the background all the time, it won't be a distinctive stimulus for them.

Include by Adapting. A few simple adaptations will help in including people with disabilities in satisfying musical experiences. If a music education class is learning to play the recorder, for example, the music teacher can identify one or two "pedal" tones for each piece: a child with special needs can play just those two notes on a recorder, or on a resonator bell, for example. An adult who can play one choir chime when you point at her can be a critical part of an anthem in her church.

Use Live Music. Live music is, in most cases, much more effective than recorded music. If you sing songs live, you can change the tempo and volume according to the mood and behavior of your clients/students/patients; you can pause to allow time for responses or to cue attention (see above), and you can change the words to fit the immediate situation. In addition, if the person with whom you're working says or does something that you can incorporate into music (like a new lyric, or new notes as you play the piano together), live music allows you to "go with the flow."

By the can sing! If you have trouble, (1) learn to sing in the range of your speaking voice -- you'll hit more notes; (2) practice to the radio/tape/CD in your car -- and if you're trying to learn a particular song, have a musical friend record it for you so you can practice singing along; (3) sing louder and slower -- you may not think you have a good voice, but others will be far more responsive if you sing with conviction and enjoyment than quietly and quickly.

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