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How Music Can Help Children With Special Needs

Music surrounds us every day, coming to us from car radios, elevator speakers, the little voices of singing children, and countless other sources. However, music has value beyond entertainment – because of its effect on gross motor function, breathing, and self-regulation for children who struggle to speak, it has been used as a therapeutic tool for many years.

How Music Affects the Brain

Music affects the right hemisphere of the brain, and there is evidence that rhythm and sound have an effect on sensory systems that, in turn, influence timing and muscle control. Studies also suggest that music can stimulate the neurons that deliver information to the brainstem and other parts of body. The inner ear is a powerful system that affects visual control, motor muscles in the mouth, and ability to self regulate.


The human brain works off the theory of “entrainment.”  When we hear or feel an external source of rhythm such as music, our bodies instinctively try to match our own rhythms to the beat. The beats per minute of a piece of music help give the body and brain different input. For example:
  • 130 beats per minute is great for high-intensity cardio.
  • 100 beats per minute is best to help with attention to task.
  • 60 beats per minute is good for before bed because it helps to return the body’s natural rhythm to a calm state.

Instrument Type Makes A Difference

The instruments used to create a piece of music also play a role in how we respond:
  • Large-body instruments like drums provide low-bass sounds that help us to organize and time our bodies.
  • Instruments like the flute provide higher-frequency sounds that are often more associated with attention to task.
  • Percussion and bass instruments provide rhythm.
  • Guitar and cello-body instruments are calming and soothing.
  • Flutes and voice call a person to attention and also affect emotions.
  • Piano provides structure.
The brain can best localize between 500 to 1500 Hz. Upper frequencies trigger attention and engagement, while sounds at lower frequencies provide little directional information and are hard to localize.

Where to Find Therapeutic Music

Music can help to provide an external way to provide calming and/or alerting input to children and adults.  Here are some suggestions and resources for finding therapeutic music.
  • Vital Sounds has a wonderful collection of therapeutic support CDs.
  • Genevieve Jereb, OTR, has a collection of fun movement CDs and cool bananas is a great calming CD.
  • Sensational Kids is a CD full of sensory support songs.
  • Sound-Ease is helpful for auditory orientation.
  • Songames for Sensory Integration CD.
  • Sound Health series of CDs for concentration, learning, thinking and productivity.
  • Classical music like Mozart for attention.
  • Instrumental soundtracks to child’s favorite movies for engagement.
  • Nature sounds and drums are great for calming.

WRITTEN ON December 10, 2013 BY:


Jessica Hunt is the director of occupational therapy and sensory integration programs at the Kaufman Children’s Center. She has extensive experience in pediatric occupational therapy and sensory integration in both the home and clinic settings. For more information on available programs, call 248-737-3430 or visit