Transforming lives through music


When it comes to engaging children with special needs, music therapy strikes the right chord

Most people have heard of music therapy, but ask them to define exactly what they think it is and you invariably get a range of different answers with varying degrees of accuracy.

A registered profession

What many people are not aware of is that music therapy is actually a registered profession, regulated by the Health Professions Council, along with art therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and many others. Music therapists are skilled musicians who have undertaken a recognised postgraduate training programme. The largest employer of music therapists in the UK is the NHS. Many also work in special needs schools.

What happens in music therapy?

The most common misconception about music therapy is that its primary aim is to make people feel calmer or more relaxed. Obviously music can have this effect on us – often powerfully so – but this is only one of the many ways in which human beings use music.

Music therapists enable people in disadvantaged circumstances of almost any kind to participate in music-making activities and to share in the rich benefits that music-making can bring. Whether it’s an autistic child, a depressed adult, an elderly person with dementia or somebody recovering from a stroke, participating in music can have a surprisingly wide range of beneficial effects. We know this for certain because responsiveness to music is universal, and research has clearly demonstrated a link between musical activity, such as learning an instrument or singing in a choir, and improved social, cognitive, emotional and physical wellbeing.
The essence of music therapy is communication and participation and the primary tool of a music therapist is improvisation. This enables him or her to create music that attunes very precisely and immediately to the child or client in the room, and thereby draw them into active and interactive participation.

Children with SEN can benefit from individual and group music therapy in a wide variety of ways, such as:

  • improving physical health and ability, including muscular skills, co-ordination, breathing and general body health
  • speech development
  • developing creative and expressive abilities
  • increasing self-esteem and confidence
  • developing social skills.

Music therapy draws out children’s natural strengths and abilities. It helps them to use and enjoy these abilities and to develop them in order to overcome or cope with any difficulties.

Case study: Mary

Mary was three years old when she began music therapy. Her premature birth had led to many health and developmental problems, and long periods of hospitalisation. With poor muscle tone and a defective heart she still could not walk independently. She was fed through a tube in her nose until she was three, and her speech by this point consisted of only about twelve words. Mary was afraid of other children coming close and was frightened by noise. In short, her future looked grim. But in individual and then group music therapy over two years, Mary has blossomed. “Music party”, as she now calls music therapy, is a space where she relates and connects to others through the sheer joyfulness of making music. She is animated and confident, playing her part with creativity and self-assurance. Rather than dwelling on her limitations, music therapy has helped Mary discover a new world of possibility. A year after her music therapy started, Mary was walking independently, speaking in sentences, enjoying her interactions with the other children and expressing affection to her family for the first time. Mary’s mum says: “Astonishing changes have taken place. We have seen Mary’s world open up, as have my husband’s and mine. Music therapy has the power to change lives.”

Further information

Fraser Simpson is Communications Manager at Nordoff Robbins:

For more information about music therapy, visit:

This article was first published in issue 49 of SEN Magazine (Nov/Dec 2010).

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