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Music Therapy for Special Needs Children

by Karen S. Hook, RMT, MA

Music Therapy utilizes music as a tool to help accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship. As a Registered Music Therapist with a Master’s Degree in Special Education, I use music to restore, maintain and improve specific skills. I typically target the development of cognitive, motor, perceptual, social and communication skills.

Music is unique in it’s ability to attract and motivate children.

Because music is fun, it rarely seems like “work” or “therapy”. The combination of a wide range of musical styles and a large variety of instruments create endless possibilities for engaging and working with almost any child. More importantly, music is flexible and adaptable. There is no right or wrong when a child is creating, interacting or participating in music. Students may sing, dance or play a drum or other rhythm instrument, while others may simply move bracelet style bells on their arm. Other students might tap a foot, or just sway or rock to the rhythm while in their parent’s arms or a wheelchair. Each child’s participation is unique. Because students of varying abilities can come together in a small music group, students build their self-confidence and self-esteem through participation with their peers.

The process of Music Therapy begins reading through a child’s IEP (Individual Education Plan).

My goal is to gather as much information as possible about your child’s strengths, weaknesses and learning styles, and see what goals have already been written by his or her teachers. For students who do not have an IEP in place, a Music Therapy assessment is available. Since Music Therapy can support speech and communication development, information from you child’s speech therapist can be valuable. It is also useful for me to read through any available reports from occupational and physical therapists, psychologists, pediatricians and other professionals that might work with your child. Additionally, parentel input on a child’s musical and non-musical preferences is requested.

After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, I design and implement therapeutic musical activities which may include singing, creating, moving or listening to music. Through musical activities, clients skills are supported and hopefully transferred to other areas of their lives. Progress in activities is charted and evaluated to continually challenge and promote new skills.

Possible Music Therapy goals might include:

Cognitive Development:

  1. develop orientation to the environment

  2. increase attention span

  3. support pre-academic and pre-reading skills

Motor Development:

  1. increase physical coordination

  2. improve dexterity and flexibility

  3. increase gross and fine motor skills

Perceptual Development:

  1. increase auditory discrimination skills

  2. develop auditory concepts

  3. increase auditory memory

Social Development:

  1. improving communication & language skills (oral language, sign language, use of icons or other augmented communication devices)

  2. improving group skills

Affective Development:

  1. increasing self-esteem and self-confidence

  2. developing leisure time activities

Many parents question how music can support pre-academic and pre-reading skills.

Being able to attend to a task at hand is a first step towards learning any new skill. Attention span is developed in Music Therapy by engaging the child in longer and longer musical activities. Students who learn to read either traditional or adapted music are developing their eye-hand coordination and tracking skills. As presented music becomes more complex, students also develop the pre-reading skill of learning to read “left to right” and “top to bottom” through a page (this is the same patterning used to read books). Additionally, many cognitive concepts can be taught through music. Consider how most children learn their ABC’s through singing! Concepts such as colors, number, animals, time telling, and seasons can all presented through music songs and activities. Musical mnemonics, or setting words to a rhythm, melody or movement, can also assist students in rote memorization of specific facts.

Other examples of Music Therapy supporting specific goals include developing eye-hand coordination and gross motor skills through playing a drum or guitar, working on expressive language skills through singing and song-writing, or improving fine motor skills at the piano. A student’s auditory memory can be enhanced through rhythm games, and gross motor skills can be developed through dancing or movement to music.

Music Therapy is different from with music education.

A traditional music educator, such as a piano teacher or guitar instructor, teaches attainment of musical skills with an emphasis on developing performance abilities. Students are typically taught by traditional, rigid methods with no adaptations to meet the child’s specific learning style.

Music Therapy, however, focuses on the development of non-musical skills. Musical activities are designed to promote specific cognitive, motor, perceptual, communication and behavioral goals. Musical “talent”, “aptitude” and/or “ability” are not prerequisites for being successful.

Many students will learn to play an instrument through private Music Therapy sessions. As a Music Therapist, I utilize a variety of teaching methods. Unlike a traditional music educator, I adapt the music to meet each child’s specific needs. For example, some students may be ready to learn traditional note reading; others may require simplified or coded music notation. Some students will learn by relying on auditory input while others learn visually. My goal is find the approach that lets your child be successful. As students advance, the methods of teaching may change to continue to challenge each child and meet their on-going goals. While not all students will learn to play the piano or guitar, many students will develop proficiency at their instrument of choice.

Who can participate in Music Therapy?

As a Music Therapist, I believe that all children are capable of engaging in musical activities. I approach each student with a goal of making their first musical experience successful. This is achieved by recognizing that each child has different strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. With the assistance of a parent or caregiver, students as young as 18 months can participate in Music Therapy sessions. As students mature and become comfortable with the therapist, the presence of a parent may not be necessary.

How can you find a Music Therapist?

Music Therapists working with children may be found in many different settings: public and private classrooms, private clinics, music studios, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, public institutions, group homes, and hospice environments. You can learn more about Music Therapy by visiting the American Music Therapy Association at This website can also assist you in finding a Music Therapist near your home.

If you would like more information on my Music Therapy practice in San Jose, CA, please feel free to visit my website at or contact me at (408) 226-1728, or via email at

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