5 Reasons Why Music Helps Children with Special Needs

Music Special Needs

We all know how powerful music can be in our own lives and in the lives of our children, but why is music so compelling and captivating?  What exactly is it about music that makes it a great way to connect with and help children with special needs? Let’s take a look.

 1. Music Motivates

Finding ways to motivate children to work on challenging tasks or skills can be difficult. Music tends to be one of the top motivators for children with special needs so you can use this to your advantage by doing the following:

  • Use captivating instruments to prompt a child to make requests, i.e. holding out a drum and waiting for them to communicate, “I want the drum”
  • Use different instruments to encourage the development of motor skills
  • Sing a song during a challenging activity so a child is more willing to work through it

This list could go on and on, just remember that whether you use recorded music or make your own music, there are so many musical ways to motivate a child!

 2. Music is a Multi-Sensory Experience

Picture a child hitting a drum with a mallet. On the surface level most people would just see a kid playing a drum but hold on, there is so much more going on. Let’s break it down.

  • Their tactile system is engaged because they are feeling the mallet in their hand
  • Their kinesthetic system in engaged as they move their wrist and arm to strike the drum
  • Their auditory system is engaged as they listen to the sound of the drum
  • Their visual system is engaged as their eyes track the motion of their arm and the mallet in their hand

About the only thing missing is their sense of smell and taste, but hey, I’ve seen that happen too! All kidding aside, music making is a perfect fit for kids with special needs because it engages and appeals to many of their sensory strengths and needs.

3. Music is Processed in Both Hemispheres of the Brain

A classic line often heard is “oh yeah, music is sooooo powerful because it is processed in the right side of the brain!” Well yeah, that’s true, but it’s only half of the story. The remarkable thing about music is that it’s processed in many regions of the brain simultaneously. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music shows that when making music, the sensory cortex, auditory cortex, hippocampus, visual cortex, cerebellum, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and motor cortex are all firing at once. Amazing! This relates to the multi-sensory experience of making music because each of these sensory systems is tied into a specific part of the brain.

4. Music is Non-verbal

Hans Christian Anderson once said, “where words fail, music speaks.”  For many of the children I work with, words fail them daily. Either they can’t get the words out or can’t process the words coming in. I always think about how maddening it must be to have limited speech skills and yet get bombarded by speech and words all day long. The only personal experience I can relate this to is when my wife and I had our rental scooter stolen during our first day in Venezuela. We desperately tried to communicate with locals and police officers, but as their words sprayed out of their mouths like machine-gun fire, we felt confused, frustrated and helpless.  We just couldn’t understand each other.

I often reflect upon this experience when I make music with a child who is non-verbal. When we connect with each other and express ourselves without words, it feels more powerful and effective than spoken language. I can’t help but think that this type of therapy and interaction is a huge relief for them.

5. Music Helps You Bond

Music is a rich and beautiful way to connect with your child and deepen your bond. Mothers have known this for centuries and now the science is showing us that Oxytocin, known as the “bonding” or “cuddle” hormone, is released when listening to and making music. Some musical ways that you can bond with your child include:

  • Getting into a routine of singing to your child throughout the day
  • Moving and dancing with them to their favorite recorded music
  • Using simple instruments such as rhythm sticks to create your own music or to jam along to some recorded music

The most important thing is to try different ways of connecting through music. During this process, you will discover more about what your child likes and dislikes. Once you have a few musical activities that your child enjoys, you are all set!

Music is Powerful

To sum it up, music ROCKS! Not only are there mountains of anecdotal evidence that tell us this, but now through the fields of Neuroscience and Music Therapy, the data shows us why music is so powerful. Music is an easy, fun and motivating way to connect with children and motivate them to develop new skills. So grab your child, grab some instruments and let’s make some music!


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Infographic music and children with special needs

Ryan Judd

Written on 2014/01/13 by:

Ryan Judd

Ryan Judd is a board certified music therapist with a master's degree in Music Therapy. He has been in private practice and specializing in children with special needs for more than 14 years. Ryan is known for his ability to connect with and motivate his clients through music, humor and drama. Ryan is also the founder of The Rhythm Tree, which is dedicated to educating parents, therapists and teachers on how to use music to help children with special needs learn, grow and thrive. Ryan has an educational video blog at www.TheRhythmTree.com and has developed an award-winning DVD and Music Kit for Children with Special Needs. You can learn more at http://www.therhythmtree.com/store