Students with Special Needs and Music: Three Ways it Helps

Page content

Music’s Indiscriminative Benefits

Music as an intervention with special needs children is a valuable resource that can lead to the strengthening of skills and the promotion of uninhibited personal development. The value of music is immeasurable as it helps individuals find or define meaning in their lives, brings people together and has the potential to create healing connections internally and externally. The therapeutic benefits of music transcend intended use or formalized implementation. According to Lane (2009), music therapy is the structured, intentional use of music to achieve a specific goal and the research literature base repeatedly demonstrates the successes of how it can positively affect behavior and cognition. It should not be surprising that music has the ability to influence mental processes and resulting behaviors. Consider how specific songs and types of music can transform mood. This familiarity reaction is not coincidental and should not be overlooked during the use of music as therapy. Austin (2010) said it has been well documented that children are receptive to music that is familiar to them and simply playing music that is deemed to be relaxing such as classical music, which is highlighted in the literature as having a positive psychophysiological response for adults, may not be relaxing for a child who is unfamiliar with such music. Therefore, it is critical to observe how a child relates to music that they are exposed to in order to identify songs, genres and groups that entice versus those that repulse or aggravate. Sometimes the attraction is unexplainable and even somewhat comical, but as long as a connection is made there is the potential for expressive healing and growth. Strehlow (2009) said that the special feature of music therapy is that it is a medium which cannot be allocated a fixed role, but is rather characterized by its flexibility as the interaction changes and adapts to the needs of the child according to the progress of the therapy. What the music will signify to the child and how it will influence the child are unpredictable. One benefit of music, particularly for children with special needs, is that it can allow for personal control of the environment. The predictability, sense of autonomy and personalization of musical experiences may endorse the perception of successful accomplishments while bolstering self-esteem (Cheong-Clinch, 2009). Music choice and selection can be a source of encouragement for children with special needs who often feel a lack of control in the adaptation to their needs and in their world.

Music Reinforces Attentiveness

Music therapy for children with special needs can enhance the awareness of and responsiveness to surrounding environments. Cheong-Clinch (2009) said that the use of songs and chants reinforces attentive behavior, a prerequisite skill for learning in a group instructional setting, listening skills, as well as phonemic discrimination, all of which are necessary for early literacy and language development. Intellectual mastery may contribute to future socialization attempts as a result of heightened understanding. The perspective of social interaction as the means through which students gain knowledge, awareness, consciousness and control over the environment supports that music is an instructional approach with the ability to promote educational and social objectives through exploration and play (Cheong-Clinch, 2009). Music and sound have the ability to intrigue, capture and expand the most distractible of minds.

Music as an intervention with special needs children has the potential to promote social growth after the experience of safe and controlled environmental testing and manipulation. Kim and colleagues (2008) said that there is growing consensus that the disturbance in the development of joint attention skills is the major characteristic of the social deficits in young children with autism. The lack of joint attention skills, such as eye contact and turn-taking, threatens the development of language and communication success. Music therapy is a more effective approach to addressing and improving upon social interaction deficits than play therapy. According to Kim and authors (2008), improvisational music therapy has long been noted for its efficacy in engaging autistic children at their level and interest, and helping them to develop spontaneous self-expression, emotional communication and social interaction. Music presents opportunities for children with special needs to test their limits and see reward in doing so. Comfort levels are expanded and newly developed skills can transfer to other settings. Music therapy experts distinguish two contrasting qualities of the improvisational music making process, which are clinically relevant in working with autistic children; and they are the possibility for stability versus flexibility (Kim et. al., 2008). At times music therapy allows for a greater sense of control through manipulation, while at other times unpredictability can seem natural and flowing for children who typically experience rigidity in their interactions. Spontaneity may be accepted as a naturally occurring process or become a less threatening challenge.

Music to Model Behavior

Music as an intervention with special needs children is a learning experience where children can witness modeled behavior so that it naturally evolves into their own lives. Music therapy and assistive guidance help children to modify their behavior with an approach that is supportive rather than punitive. Music presents a natural environment where collaboration and cooperation are vital in the creation of melodic and interpersonal harmony. Young children are forced to practice following directions, taking turns, identifying, playing and passing instruments, and remaining on-task throughout musical activity (Lane, 2009). These skills are transferable to other social settings and when learned in a positive manner, children will be more likely to access and apply their new set of skills. Lane (2009), author of “Toddler Rock: Music Therapy at Its Best,” found that positive reinforcement of desired behaviors results in the reduction of off-task behavior and motivates children to remain on task. A positive method that Lane (2009) implemented for distributing directions was singing rather than speaking in order to capture and hold attention. This delivery of instruction is much more appealing and memorable. Children might even catch themselves singing directions after the music group has ended. Lane’s (2009) example of directions in song involved singing the following to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”: “I’m looking for a girl who’s sitting criss-cross, Sitting criss-cross, sitting criss-cross. I’m looking for a girl who’s sitting criss-cross, Quiet as a mouse.” The children who respond and follow directions can be rewarded with opportunities to choose the musical instrument of their choice or decide which song will be sung first. Pairing the specific desired behavior with a desirable musical consequence is effective when it is consistent and repeated with variation (Lane, 2009). Consistency cannot be undervalued when it comes to behavior reinforcement. Children will be confused and fail to learn desired behaviors if they do not seem necessary and constant. Music can lead to connection and understanding by creating a less intimidating learning environment.

Music Therapy Fosters Speech Therapy

The benefits of music as an intervention with special needs children extend into all aspects of life. The process has the ability to support speech therapy interventions. Music therapists are trained to adapt elements of music e.g. tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, and texture to promote effective communication strategies (Geist et. al., 2008). The ease in transition that music presents strengthens verbal fluidity. Cheong-Clinch (2009) said that since song and music contain a rhythmic structure, it may be easier to maintain the rhythm found in music than the rhythm of isolated speech. If children excel through use of music, they may gain confidence in their speech efforts and accelerate progress. Research has found that music techniques promoted increased breath and muscle control, stimulated vocalization, developed receptive and expressive language skills, and improved articulation skills (Geist et. al., 2008). Music is a tool that supports existing skills and develops faltering abilities. Zoller (1991) said that musical activities stress nonverbal forms of communication and often surpass physical, cultural, intellectual, and emotional limitations by including strategies such as relaxation exercises, breathing and vocalization exercises, song articulation experiences, word and phrase rhythm chanting experiences, and vocabulary and concept development singing. The realm of music therapy is expansive, which allows for a wide range of goals based on a variety of needs. Geist and colleagues (2008) said that music creates more opportunities for repeated practice than would seem natural in non-music activities. Music therapy can be a non-judgmental experience that is a source of comfort and personal growth.

Children with autism who experience echolalia or the repetition of words or phrases as a self-stimulating behavior benefit from music therapy. Working together, speech and music therapists can develop treatment interventions. In “Integrating Music Therapy Services and Speech-Language Therapy Services for Children with Severe Communication Impairments: A Co-Treatment Model,” Geist and colleagues (2008) found that an intervention including musical stimuli in various imitation exercises, singing experiences, and fill in the blank rhythmic exercises reduced a subjects echolalia from 95% of the total utterances to under 10%. Music can be an outlet for unfocused energy that is transformed into positive and productive outcomes.


Austin, D. (2010). The psychophysiological effects of music therapy in intensive care units. Pediatric Nursing, 22(3), 14-20.

Cheong-Clinch, C. (2009). Music for engaging young people in education. Youth Studies Australia, 28(2), 50-57.

Geist, K., McCarthy, J., Rodgers-Smith, A., & Porter, J. (2008). Integrating music therapy services and speech-language therapy services for children with severe communication impairments: A co-treatment model. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 35(4), 311-316.

Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2008). The effects of improvisational music therapy on joint attention behaviors in autistic children: A randomized controlled study. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 38(9), 1758-1766.

Lane, D. (2009). Toddler rock: Music therapy at its best. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 21(1), 97-101.

Strehlow, G. (2009). The use of music therapy in treating sexually abused children. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 18(2), 167-183.

Zoller, M. B. (1991). Use of music activities in speech-language therapy. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 22, 272-276.

Additional Resource

American Music Therapy Association: