What is Music Therapy?

Down Syndrome Amongst Us, Issue 5/1997, p. 30-2. Copyright © 1997
Kathleen A. Coleman, RMT-BC
Registered Music Therapist, Board Certified
Prelude Music Therapy
3360 Spruce Lane
Grapevine, TX 76051
(817) 481-2323
Reprinted with the permission of Sarah M. Sander, Editor
32 Rutlage Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 834-2055
Fax: (718) 834-5255

     Music therapy is the prescribed, structured use of music and music strategies by a trained music therapist to influence changes in the learning or behavior patterns of a child. It is one of the related services listed in both the federal and state laws pertaining to the education of individuals with disabilities.
     Parents often choose to seek out a music therapist because they notice that their child is particularly responsive to or motivated by music. Parents wonder if music would be a tool to help the child learn needed skills. Indeed, music can be an effective learning tool for many children with disabilities. The effectiveness of this tool varies from child to child and music therapy is definitely not a miracle cure for any type of disability. However, since music is processed by a different area of the brain than speech and language, a child may be able to more easily absorb information and skills presented with music. Music is also motivating and fun, which is useful when working with a child who demonstrates low motivation to learn.
     Music therapists working with children who are developmentally disabled select objectives from the IEP (or from whatever education plan is in place, if the individual is not school age) that can be reinforced and supported through the use of music strategies. The music therapist then selects and designs songs, instrumental activities, movement activities and other types of related musical approaches that will help address the designated IEP objectives. For example, a music therapist might have a child who has the following objectives on his/her IEP:      The music therapist might use number flashcards paired with a song about numbers to encourage number recognition. She might also utilize instruments with numbers taped to them to further develop number recognition. A song that lists the days of the week could be used to develop the skill of saying the days of the week in correct order. The music therapist consistently encourages the student to use a short phrase to request items. Often, when a student sees something he or she really wants, then a phrase can be more easily encouraged. Pairing the reading of safety and survival signs with a particular song assists the student in retaining this information more successfully.

Why Does Music Therapy Work?

The following profile illustrates the ways in which music therapy can be of value in assisting children with Down syndrome to learn.

Colby Bannister
     Colby is seven years old and is a gregarious, personable young boy. He thoroughly enjoys all life has to offer including his dance lessons, camping, fishing, playing with his friends and reading books. He attends a regular first grade class with help from the resource room teacher.
     Colby has Down syndrome, which causes him to learn more slowly than the average child his age. He learns best when concepts are introduced repetitively in various ways. Math skills, such as number concepts and addition are more difficult for Colby, while letter skills and reading come more easily. Colby' s excellent memory helps him retain skills once he is able to master them.
     Colby' s parents decided to pursue music therapy because Colby had always liked music and was in need of a therapeutic avenue to work on language and academic skills. Although private speech therapy had been helpful in the past, he had benefited all he could from this avenue learning. Music therapy offered a different way to reinforce goals on his Individual Education Plan. Pairing specific learning skills with music seemed to help Colby concentrate and retain information.
     Colby' s current Individual Education Plan (IEP) prioritizes primarily academic skills in the areas of language arts, mathematics, science, health, physical education and fine arts. In addition, he does receive speech therapy through the school district. Speech therapy objectives include: choosing the picture that does not belong, identifying an object or picture by function, telling the function when an object is named, answering questions from an oral story, giving personal information in sentence form, and understanding and responding to "wh" questions. Speech therapy also addresses articulation of the "K", "G" and "F" sounds.
     Colby began receiving music therapy in the summer of 1990. Initially, he attended a group music therapy session offered during the summer. At the end of the summer, his parents decided to enroll him in private music therapy. When Colby first began music therapy, he spoke primarily in single words and a few phrases. He was always willing to try any task presented with music, so motivating Colby was quite easy. Initial focus of music therapy was on expanding Colby' s vocabulary and length of utterance. Colby rapidly learned the names of instruments, even unusual ones such as the cabasa, and began to request his favorite instruments with longer phrases and sometimes simple sentences. Academic concepts, such as color, shape and letter identification were addressed through music therapy by using various songs and instrumental strategies which reinforced these concepts. Providing a tape for Colby to listen to at home or in the car was additional reinforcement.
     Currently, Colby receives private music therapy once a week for thirty minutes. His music therapy objectives include such skills as completing a rhyme with a rhyming word, sounding out words by using beginning and ending consonants of a word, acquiring a basic sight word vocabulary related to music (i.e., names of instruments), demonstrating understanding of number quantity to 10, stating his address and phone number and several other skills. One of Colby' s favorite songs, The Riddle-Rhyme Song, encourages him to complete each verse with a rhyming word. He quickly mastered the eight verses, which left the therapist with the task of writing more verses!! Colby enjoys one strategy in particular which involves choosing a card with the printed name of an instrument from a stack of cards. When he correctly reads the name of the instrument, he has the opportunity to play that instrument. He is always able to identify the word drum!
     His parents think that music therapy has been particularly helpful in reinforcing the goals from Colby' s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In their words, "music therapy provides a different and fun avenue for learning, and provides the additional repetition that Colby needs to learn and retain specific skills."

  Revised: February 17, 1999.