Music Therapy and Disabilities
Music Therapy is an effective therapeutic and educational tool for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Music therapy strategies can effect changes in skill areas important to people with -- for example -- mental retardation, autism-spectrum disorders, Rett Syndrome, Williams Syndrome**, learning disabilities, attachment disorder, and cerebral palsy. The scope of music therapy
practice in this area is too great to cover on this site, but some of the primary applications are listed here. If you know or work with a person with developmental disabilities, think about his or her goals and see if these ideas might apply.
Music is an effective means of stimulating and focusing attention, and may be especially significant for some people who do not respond to other interventions. Sometimes music is used simply as a stimulating introduction; in other circumstances, an entire therapeutic intervention will be structured with music, to maintain attention.
Changes in music can provide additional signals; "alerts" that important information or interactions are coming. On the other hand, some music can provide a calming effect when anxiety gets in the way of cognitive focus.
Music, of course, is an important tool in learning. Part of its benefit comes from the fact that repetition within music can be more enjoyable than without it. Music also can provide significant assistance in memorization (as all advertisers know!). Perhaps most important for some people is the fact that they can successfully participate in music even if they have significant difficulties in other areas (this is one of the things music therapists are trained to accomplish). Having experienced that feeling of accomplishment, a person may be motivated to try other challenging things.
There is increasing scientific evidence that rhythm stimulates and organizes muscle response, with a significant assist to people with neuromuscular disorders; this is but one way in which music therapy strategies can be helpful in improving physical skills. When a particular note, played on an instrument or activated on an electronic device, is critical to the completion of a song -- even a person with severe physical disabilities can be the centerpiece of a successful musical experience.
The opportunity to participate in music can motivate someone to attempt physical movements that require extra effort. Alternatively, music can be relaxing and can alter perception of pain.
Music therapy has the distinction of being effective at stimulating and motivating speech, as well as providing an avenue for nonverbal communication. Music therapy is also a valuable adjunct to someone who is learning to use an augmentative or alternative communication system.
In certain songs (and many music therapists compose songs this way), melody and harmony cue speech by setting up a sort of auditory anticipation, but delaying the resolution until someone provides the final lyric. Try singing "Happy Birthday" and stopping just before the final "you." It's difficult not to finish it, especially if someone is accompanying you and the harmony just hangs there.
In other singing activities, rhythm can help someone slow down his or her rate of speech and be more intelligible. The way songs are stored and the way rhythm stimulates motor function seem to help people with apraxia of speech. And changing melody lines can help improve the range and inflection of a voice.
Music therapy can help people work on social skills in two ways: by providing a consistent, familiar support for practicing (a "hello" song, for example), and by encouraging cooperation in the production of a satisfying musical product, like a waltz accompanied by three people, each of whom play on a beat -- or a bell choir performance in which each note is important.
Music also provides wonderful opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to interact and cooperate with people who do not have the same challenges. Music can be enriching as a "level-playing field."
Music provides many opportunities for expressing and experiencing a variety of emotions. The desire to participate in music, and to produce something musical, can be a motivation to control emotional outbursts. And music, when it is live, can be changed -- moment to moment -- to reflect, or perhaps alter the mood of those listening and participating. The success that so many people with disabilities can achieve in music has
a positive effect on self-esteem, as well.
**Please see this article
for more information on people with Williams Syndrome and their musical abilities.