Special Education within the school setting has been a controversial and confusing subject for as long as the school system has existed. The questions are obvious and simple, while the solutions are not: What do you do with these students who learn and act so differently? Should they be included in the general population or separated? What makes learning the easiest and most effective for students with disabilities? One technique that researchers have found to be useful in the education and lives of students and people with disabilities is the use of music. Music has been found to help people, with or without disabilities, in all aspects of their lives. Listening to, singing, and playing music has the potential to assist people with disabilities by adjusting negative behaviors and brain activities, assisting in the expression of emotions and feelings, and learning speech and language patterns, as long as the right people are involved, the right strategies are used, and the history of musical therapy is discussed.
Before discussing the applications of music in the special education classroom, definitions of the terms to be discussed are necessary. According to a pamphlet created by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster called An Introduction to Special Education, special education is “the special teaching your child gets to meet his or her needs as a child with a disability (Burmaster, 9).” Special education in the United States uses a plan for the student called an “Individualized Education Program,” or IEP. The IEP helps teachers throughout the school know the plan written out for the student to help him or her learn to the best of their abilities.
One recommendation that can be written for a student is music therapy, which, according to Music in Special Education by Mary S. Adamek. and Alice-Ann Darrow is “the use of music to achieve non-music goals and can address students’ development in cognitive, behavioral, physical, emotional, social, and communication domains (Adamek, 103).” Music therapy can be used within both the special education setting and the general music education situation. SEMTAP, or the Special Education Music Therapy Assessment Process, is a step-by-step process to decide if music therapy is the appropriate measure to take for said student. It states quite clearly that “students who are making progress on their IEP goals and objectives would not be referred for a music therapy assessment…[and] a student who is not making progress…could be a candidate for a music therapy assessment (Adamek, 119).” This means that students who are positively responding to the IEP’s plans will not be recommended for the music therapy program.
As opposed to music therapy, music education, or the “instruction of basic music literacy in five areas of music experience: playing instruments, singing, moving to music, listening to music, and creating music (Zieve, slide 6).” According to “Using Music as a Successful Inclusive Modality- Tools, Strategies, Resources, and Tips for All Educators,” a presentation given by Wendy Zieve MA, MT-BC, music education and music therapy are closely related, but clearly defined as stated above. One is a teaching of music to students, generally in the school setting, and the other is the technique of using music as an aid for people with disabilities to learn and assist in their lives.
A Little More on Music Therapy
Music therapy and/or using music to heal and assist individuals with disabilities has been seen throughout the world for many years. The University Hospitals of Cleveland claim that music therapy began in ancient times, evidenced by Biblical scriptures and Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Grecian, and Roman writings (UHC). The first documented use of music for healing was seen in World War I and World War II, where music was used to distract and relieve veterans from the pain they were experiencing at the veterans’ hospitals. The National Association for Music Therapy, or NAMT, was created in 1950 to help music therapists communicate ideas and help more disabled individuals. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) was created when the NAMT and another music therapy group collaborated forces (UHC).
There is even literature discussing the benefits of music prior to the formation of the NAMT. Therapeutic and Industrial Uses of Music, published in 1948 and written by Doris Soibelman, gives many informative reviews of literature and research. She discussed one of the first recorded studies done on the effects of music on the body in France in 1741 (Soibelman, 26). In this study, A.E.M Gretry put his hand on an individual’s artery and “noted the change in pulse pressure while he sang at different tempos (Soibelman, 26).” This short excerpt shows that although the exact beginning of music therapy cannot be placed on a timeline, it has been studied for many centuries.
However, the interest in musical healing has increased more and more throughout the years. Music therapy has become more popular within the United States in the last fifty years. The literature that discusses music therapy, music education, and special education has become more obtainable and finding information on those subjects has become easier. This change is a result of the shift in views on the subject- from a mystical standpoint from the past to a scientific and logical assessment.
Why Music Therapy is Beneficial
The real question behind all the research is why is music so beneficial to people with disabilities? A recent article in the Dells Events called “Music helps children with autism learn” quotes Rachel Arnston at the 10th Annual CESA 5 School-Based Speech/Language Pathology Institute’s two-day conference , saying that “music has been shown to trigger the same activity in [the] brain as sex, drugs, and alcohol: it is a euphoric inducing stimulant that leads to increases in attention, alertness, mood, and neurochemical changes in brain.” This study concludes that music increases a pleasant sensation that allows one’s brain to accept new information easier. Aruston continues by saying that “musicians’ brains have been shown to have increased levels of neuroplasticity (Arnston),” which creates more synaptic connections more easily and more effectively and in turn making new connections easier to create.
Research has supported music’s use as a therapy by observing the connections between “rhythm and motor behavior, memory and song, speech and singing, preferred music and enhanced mood, [and the] more-easily absorbed skills taught through music because it augments bi-lateral brain processes (Zieve, 9).” The American Music Therapy Association, Inc. states that “music therapy interventions can address development in cognitive, behavioral, physical, emotional, and social skills, [and] facilitate development in communication and sensorimotor, or “relating to both the motor and sensory functions in the brain or the neurological structures underlying these functions” (Encarta Dictionary), skills (AMTA).” The AMTA goes on to state that music stimulates attention and increases motivation within the educational setting with the correct use of a music therapist. Zieve’s presentation also shares her insight on the neurological effects of music on the brain, saying that rhythm can retrain motor, speech, and cognitive functions. This means that music, specifically rhythm, can actually reform the already-created connections and assist in the formation of new behaviors.
Besides the neurological benefits, music has profound effects on other aspects of people’s lives. First of all, music classes are most often the first inclusive settings chose for students in the special education program. Some benefits to inclusion include, but are not limited to: offering a wider circle of friends for the student with disabilities, an increasing acceptance from students without disabilities of students who are different from themselves, and an opportunity for teachers to individualize their teaching to the needs of students (Adamek, 45). Inclusion into music programs makes for a quick and simple integration due to many factors, because of the already-varied abilities within the classroom. Even within the general education community, there is a wide variety of students having a natural talent in music and those that struggle. This makes it an easier feat to introduce students with disabilities into the setting.
Inclusion assists students with disabilities with many different skills. These skills include “greeting and bidding farewell, learning the names of others in your group, finding and cooperating with a partner, turn-taking, initiation and eye contact, assisting others…[and] passing things appropriately to a peer (Zieve, 31).” These skills prove important in any setting for any group of people. The article “Teaching Music to Children with Autism: Understanding and Perspectives,” published in Music Educators Journal by Ryan Hourigan and Amy Hourigan suggests recruiting regular education classmates to assist with providing verbal cues, such as giving direction on an appropriate behavior or supporting social relationships. The Hourigans state that this technique also “alleviates the stress of managing the classroom entirely on your own. [The] student may also be capable of completing a self-evaluation, which will aid his or understanding of rewards and consequences (Hourigan, 43).” The peer mentor could assist the teacher in the overall mechanics of the class.
A program done in Israel in 1995 involved 20 young people, both with and without disabilities. According to Cochavit Elefant, the reviewer of this program, “inclusion is an ultimate social goal (Stige, 76),” meaning that throughout the history of special education, the true objective is inclusion and perhaps a chance for total integration. Elefant continues by saying that a successful inclusion process “contributes to social change within the community, but it could only work if everyone involved strive together towards the same goal (Stige, 77).” He is asserting that inclusion can only work if it involves the community as well as a specified population and if everyone is working for the same objective. Elefant finds that group work is an extremely valuable resource for help. He says that participants in the group “identify their abilities and skills in their group.” This allows the participants to learn how to realize their own and others’ strengths and roles. He also states that it can create long and lasting relationships for all of those involved. A short excerpt quoted from a young girl without disabilities proves this. When asked why the inclusive summer camp was chosen instead of others, Sharon, a child without disabilities, discusses her new friends with disabilities, by sharing that
Most friends go together to summer camps, and now that we have Amy and Mira as our friends, it is only natural that we would spend the summer together.
This shows that although the three children are so different, music has allowed them to feel a similar passion and work towards a common goal. Music already “provides a more concrete medium in which group dynamics are manifested” and “members of the group play music together [and are] united by common musical beat, and this unity contributes to group cohesion (Pellitteri).”
Music and inclusion invite relationships in different ways as well. Martha Gaustad and Thomas Kluwin did a study about communication between deaf and hearing adolescents. Within the study, they found that students with like-interests form lasting relationships. The scientists state that “adolescents in particular associate or disassociate on the basis of race, neighborhood…[and] musical preference (Stige, 108).” Music can introduce students to more experiences, giving them more of a chance to find common ground with their peers.
On the flip side of the coin, inclusion not only assists students with disabilities, but students without disabilities as well. It allows people without disabilities to learn about disabilities. It also helps to remove labels that people have created for one another. Even Ruud is has stated, “I often found that music is linked to a greater awareness of our own possibilities of action, a feeling of mastery, or increased basic social communicative skills (Stige, 223),” meaning that music creates an easier atmosphere to discover oneself. The Isreali study adds to this argument by quoting Nina, talking about Amy, a girl with an unnamed disability:
Wow! Even though Amy can’t speak she sure knows what she wants!…This is more than I can say about myself…Don’t worry; I’ll be right back to play… the tambourine [with you]. This suits me fine.
Nina is learning skills and things about herself through Amy. Nina learns that she is not as confident in her decisions, and realizes that she needs to be more decisive. She also realizes that she does not necessarily have to be the one playing the tambourine to be helping; she could just be holding the instrument for another to play.
Communication through Music: Speech and Expression
Music therapy has been known to help people with communication problems as well. In an article by the UCP, it is said that “singing and speech share many similarities (UCP, 2)” so that music therapy can be used to teach people speech patterns. Learning music can also “increase breath support and oral motor strength (UCP, 2).” One particular use of music that many individuals may not think of is fit for the Blind or the Deaf community. Adamek discusses techniques to adapt the classrooms and instruments to the students’ needs, such as writing largely on the board, speaking while demonstrating, using imitation, and signing songs (Adamek, 221 & 251). The main focus for educational programs for the Deaf culture is to teach English. The human voice speaks in different tones and pitches, moving up and down depending on the message we wish to convey. People with hearing loss are either born without the ability or lose the ability to hear and understand the pitch changes. Music assists these individuals to be able to feel the change in pitch and rhythm and sound more natural in their vocal speech. “Learning words and articulating particular phonemes can be aided through singing songs (e.g. learning the sequence of the alphabet from the ABC song) (Pellitteri, 384)” which means that singing songs can increase the production of words learned and phonemes understood. Phonemes are a “speech sound that distinguishes one word from another, e.g. the sounds “d” and “t” in the words”, according to Encarta Dictionary.
Music has the ability to provoke and express emotions in ways that non-vocal individuals can use. Music creates an environment where “a nonverbal child who is resistant to speaking may feel more comfortable in the nonjudgmental and nonverbal activities (Pellitteri, 384).” The ease of expressing oneself through basic noises from the mouth or blowing air through an instrument may be attractive to those individuals that cannot form full sentences or words. Flashcards have been used by special education teachers in the past to help students express their emotions when they can’t express them with words.
Music has been found to induce emotions, generally happiness, sadness, and fear (Juslin, 101). Many people with autism (or other disabilities), low spectrum or high spectrum, have difficulty understanding feelings or emotions. During an interview with sufferers of brain damage, Peretz, Belleville, and Fontaine (1997) found that, although an individual was unable to recognize a piece of music, he or she was still able to identify the feeling behind the piece. For instance, when the tune of “Happy Birthday” was played, while she was unable to recognize the tune, she still knew that it was a happy piece. One could take these results to show that although one doesn’t understand why these emotions are invoked, they still are conceived within the human brain. Using this knowledge, one could play a piece in a minor mode, explain to them the feeling of sadness or anger, and use this as a teaching moment to better understand emotions and their formations. This being said, the notion of “expression does not require that there is a correspondence between what the listener perceives in a performance and what the performer intends to express (Juslin, 455)” comes into play. This basically says that in music, there are no wrong answers when it comes to expression and emotions invoked by the music. So if one does wish to use this opportunity to teach about emotions, one must understand that emotions may be different on an individual basis.
As children, we are subjected to lullabies and baby talk, both spoken and sung in “sing-songy,” moving tones. Individuals learn early on that music is a source of relaxation and calming down for sleep (Juslin, 102). Music can be used to calm one down in a stressful situation. In many cases, background music can be used. Depending on which kind of music one uses, music can invoke different kinds of moods. Classical and new age music are often very calming genres for background music (UCP, 3).
Effects on Behaviors
Music versus negative behaviors has been a highlighted aspect of these studies. In the past, striking and harsh tones were produced in the presence of negative behaviors of students with disabilities in order to create an undesirable feeling associated with that behavior. This induced a shock-like response from the students. While this temporarily solved the problem, it created more harm than success for the students in the long-run. Zieve, in her presentation, states (about ADHD, but it fits for a majority of disabilities) that instructional accommodation should include thinking “do,” when one may wish to say “don’t” (Zieve, 59) This means that regardless of what comes naturally, negatively approaching negative behaviors never helps anyone. Adamek suggests using “music as a competing behavior (Adamek, 147).” The strategy pins the negative behavior against music: one cannot play an instrument while striking another, or sing while screaming or swearing. Electronic music is effective in dealing with other negative behaviors.
Strategies for All: Orff and Other Strategies That Can Be Used
For Students With and Without Disabilities
There are many different strategies to achieve many different skills for individuals with and without disabilities. First of all is the Orff technique. Carl Orff invented a hands-on approach to music unlike all others. He found ways to weave dance, vocal sounds, movements, and rhythms into the teaching of music. His unique and active approach gives students with disabilities the opportunity to use their bodies to make music and express themselves. In Orff’s literature, he illustrates a chart of musical development to simplify each aspect of music. The first three branches of the chart go from Rhythm, to Speech and Movement. This states that the importance of the Orff technique does not rest on the accuracy of notes, but the self-expression in itself (Warner, 9).
Orff suggests several different nontraditional techniques in order to teach students music. One technique emphasizes rhythm. Orff states that jump rope rhymes are excellent resources to assist students with meter, accents, and the ability to keep beat with the jump rope/ jumping while chanting different rhythms. Orff uses this rhythmic speech in a simpler form, by giving students different words to remember rhythms (i.e. “Valen-tine” for ♫♪ and “Gir-affe” for ♫) (Warner, 18).
But Orff’s emphasis remained in the power of movement. Orff believed that movement could be used to understand pulse and expression. Orff shows this by giving examples of exercises where the individual moves to the beat of a piece of music in a style that he or she sees fitting for the piece. The Orff technique uses movement as a way to solidify the knowledge of music by using a natural and basic reaction and then continuing this action in a more complex way. (Wagner).
Another way of moving with the music is the use of sign language during songs. Even for students without hearing-difficulties, signing solidifies other musical objects by expressing them through arm and finger movement. These expressions consist of “rhythm, temp, tempo changes, style, texture, tone color, form, and dynamics (Adamek, 251).”
In line with the social implications of music, Adamek suggests using a concept called “social story songs.” These are little songs that teach students how to properly react in social situations. For example, the following social story song assists in the learning to wait your turn:
(Sung to the ABC song tune)
Wait your turn, wait today,
Then you’ll have a chance to play.
First it’s her, then it’s him.
Round the circle back to you.
Wait your turn, wait today,
Then you’ll have a chance to play.
One can also use songs as mnemonic devices for keeping in mind sequences or catorical structures (Pellitteri, 385). “Old McDonald” and the “ABC song” are both examples of this use of music.
In the same field, music can be used to remember routines. Recall the “Clean Up” song from Barney & Friends:
Clean Up, Clean Up,
Clean Up, Clean Up,
Everybody do their share.
This little ditty is sung at the end of every episode, to create an atmosphere of “clean up your messes before moving on to the next activity.” Pellitteri states that in a group session, “the session should starts with a “Hello” song, which serves as a transitional function from previous classroom activities, and ends with a “Good Bye” song that gives a sense of closure (Pellitteri, 383).” This shows that music can be used to transition students from activity to activity, without the prospect of emotional meltdowns. It should be noted that a transition can range from “traveling from the child’s classroom to the music classroom to completing one activity and beginning another,” according to “Teaching Music to Children with Autism: Understanding and Perspectives,” by Ryan Hourigan and Amy Hourigan. They recommend “(1) playing recorded music during transitions (2) providing verbal cues that one activity is almost done and describing what should be expected next (3)providing a written schedule for your student, and (3) permitting the child time to adjust to what is coming next (Hourigan, 40).” The Houigans also suggest using the PECS (Picture Exchange Communication Exchange) to transition students from activity to activity. This picture system consists of small pictures given to the student. When prompted with a question, the student can respond by placing a picture on a display. In the transitionary area, teachers can also place the next activity on the display to allow students to prepare for what’s coming next (Hourigan, 41).
Visual Concepts in Music
Visual cues are extremely helpful for students to fully grasp a concept and to make the activity more personalized. One technique to use visuals is to copy photographs of students and laminate them. Then, when singing a song that all the students know, the teacher can hold a picture of a student up to sing the next verse or word (Zieve, 55). Color coding patterns within songs helps students grasp the concept of repetitive structures (Zieve, 49). This helps students who are not naturally musical understand and be able to notate simple motifs.
Strategies for Students with Hearing Impairments
One assumption that many music educators need to avoid is the idea that students with hearing impairments cannot be benefited from the use of music. As addressed before, the use of sign language within the music classroom can assist students with and without hearing disabilities. In addition to this idea, the article “Strategies for Working with Children with Cochlear Implants” by Lyn Schraer-Joiner and Manuela Prause-Weber brings other strategies to light.
A cochlear device “converts incoming sound signals into electrical impulses that directly stimulate the remaining auditory nerve fibers in the inner ear (Schraer-Joiner, 48).” This differs from a hearing aid in that hearing aids only amplify the sound.Schraer-Joiner’s article strongly emphasizes using the idea of a multisensory strategy of teaching music. This means that instead of focusing only on the visual images of music or listening to music, approaching it in various ways. For instance, placing the stereo system on the floor induces vibrations that allow the student to feel the pulse of the music and experience it through feel. Along with this the use of “visual aids, such as sequencing cards and music with enlarged print, can help to reinforce the concepts (Schraer-Joiner, 49).”
Music is a Support, Not a Complete Solution
Before using these strategies in a classroom, it is very important to understand that music shouldn’t work alone in the therapy of a child. In Arnston’s article she makes it very clear that “music is not the end all…she only uses music for a small amount of what she does…music provides the emotional connection and the therapeautic part is provided by the activities around it (Arnston).” The American Music Therapy Association, Inc. even states that “music therapists can support special education classroom teachers (AMTA)” meaning that music therapy is a support system, not a cure or a standalone strategy.
As with any item listed on the IEP, one strategy is not enough to fully give the student all that he or she needs. Pelliterri confirms this by saying that “consultations with physical, occupational, and speech therapists can lead to the incorporation of music as a support in those clinical services (Pelliterri, 388).” Music is a support system and should never be treated as a student’s only strategy to be mainstreamed or to learn.
Music has been found to heal people in many different ways. Even if this means that the healing is temporary relief, music can do many and miraculous things. Music should be utilized in more classes, both special and general education. Music can help students learn, relax, and work on behavioral issues. It can assist in social situations and with speech and hearing issues. Music gives students with severe disabilities a chance to belong in a mainstream school setting and gives them a purpose in helping make something beautiful. Because of all that music has been found to help people with disabilities with, one may believe that music is not nearly as utilized as it should be. After seeing the number of techniques available, one should not be able to find an instance that music cannot be used. Although music has been proven to do much for the school setting, it is important to remember that it is not a cure-all. But as long as music is used within the right contexts with the correct support tools, music has the potential to positively affect any aspect of an individual’s life.
Adamek, Mary S. and Alice-Ann Darrow. Music in Special Education. The American Music Therapy Association, Inc. Silver Spring, MD. 2005.
Hourigan, Ryan and Amy. “Teaching Music to Children with Autism: Understandings and Perspectives.” Music Educators Journal. September 2009. Volume 96, Number 1. The National Association for Music Education.
Iseminger, Scott H. “Keys to Success with Autistic Children.” Teaching Music. April 2009. Volume 16, Number 6. The National Association for Music Education.
Juslin, Patrik N. and John A. Sloboda. Handbook of Music and Emotion. Oxford University Press, New York. 2010.
Kluwin, Thomas N., Donald F. Moores, and Martha Gonter Gaustad. Towards Effective Public School Programs for Deaf Students. Teachers College Press, New York. 1992.
Madsen, Clifford K. and Carol A. Prickett. Applications of Research in Music Behavior. Universtity of Alabama Press, Alabama.1987.
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Soibelman, Doris. Therapeutic and Industrial Uses of Music. Columbia Universtity Press, New York. 1948.
Schraer-Joiner, Lyn and Manuela Prause-Weber. “Strategies for Working with Children with Cochlear Implants.” Music Educators Journal. September 2009. Volume 96, Number 1. The National Association for Music Education.
Stige, Brynjulf. Where Music Helps. Ashgate Publishing Limited, England. 2010.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. An Introduction to Special Education. June 2007.
Warner, Brigitte. Orff-Schulwer: Applications for the Classroom. Prentice Hall, New Jersey. 1991.
Zieve, Wendy. Using Music as a Successful Inclusive Modality – Strategies, Resources and Tips for all Educators. Presentation. October 9, 2010.