Special Education Services

The Role of Music Therapy in Special Education

Finding and deploying helpful techniques in special education is an ongoing challenge for special education instructors. Finding techniques that deliver personalized benefits for each individual student enhances the challenge. One of the most successful techniques for a wide range of special education students is music therapy. It encompasses a wide range of teaching options, which helps instructors personalize the therapy for each student. 

It can help to promote communication and sensory inputs. It provides improved fine motor skills and control over movement. It can give students a sense of accomplishment. Universities across the world have a strong belief in the music therapy branch of special education, offering specific classes and degrees in this area.

Parents and instructors who don’t have experience with music therapy in the special education classroom setting may want to explore their options. We will provide information to help you better understand the role music therapy can play with special education students.

Methods of Using Music Therapy in the Special Education Classroom

I have a significant passion for music therapy with special education students. Through personal experience while working as an autism specialist in a large school district in Washington State, I saw first hand the improvement students were able to make. For students who struggle, music therapy can deliver amazing results, helping students gain valuable confidence.

  • What Is Music Therapy?
  • Music Therapy for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Music Therapy for Students With Behavioral Disorders
  • Music Therapy for Students Who Struggle With Memorization
  • Music Therapy for Students With Physical Disorders

What Is Music Therapy?

Instructors of all types, including special education instructors, may use music therapy to help people reach goals regarding wellness, stress management, improved communication, and expression of emotion and feeling, according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

The idea of using music therapy to help people with a wide range of issues dates back to around 1800. Michigan State University offered the first music therapy-associated academic program in the 1940s.

Special Education and Music Therapy

Regardless of the age of the student, music therapy programs can provide benefits. Music therapy appears in early childhood settings, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.

According to the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, music therapy has proven effective in multiple areas of special education. Music therapy serves as a creative means of delivering art therapy for children who respond to those techniques. It also works in tandem with other instructional techniques in special education environments.

When working with an educator with certification and training in special education music therapy, students can work toward the goals found in their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Music therapists will work in conjunction with other special educational professionals, school administrators, and parents or guardians to add music therapy aspects to the IEP.

Because music therapy is a recognized health profession, it works under the umbrella of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This act guarantees that students with disabilities are able to receive a free, appropriate public education experience that meets their unique needs. 

Under IDEA, special education students may receive music therapy instruction for free through the local public school system, as long as music therapy is part of the student’s IEP.

Create an Assessment of Each Student’s Needs

As part of any IEP, school officials and special education instructors must individualize the plan to the needs of the student. When deploying music therapy as part of the IEP, instructors will need to perform an assessment of the student’s needs and goals. This assessment helps the team determine the best path for making use of music therapy.

Music therapists may start by studying any past traumas for the student. The instructor does not want to deploy a type of music therapy that would serve as a trigger for one of the student’s past traumas.

Then the instructor should study the student’s experience with music. Special education instructors should take a look at the student’s aptitude for musical instruments or singing, while also considering the musical preferences and background of the student. Tapping into a style of music or a type of instrument the student already enjoys can create a heightened level of engagement quickly before broadening the offerings.

Finally, the assessment process when using music therapy should be ongoing. Just as with any other aspect of a student’s IEP, instructors need to be willing to make changes in the music therapy plan to meet the student’s current needs. 

When the student is making progress with a certain area of music therapy, creating a greater emphasis in that area or broadening it can be beneficial to the student. On the flip side, if the student doesn’t show meaningful progress using music therapy, it may need to come out of the IEP in favor of a different technique.

Ways to Use Music Therapy in the Special Education Classroom

When attempting to determine the best ways to deploy music therapy in the classroom, instructors must take into account the student’s individual needs. This is the same process that any special education team would use in developing the student’s IEP. Goals and techniques that are part of the IEP must involve individualization. 

Music therapists working in the special education classroom have a number of avenues they can use to try to deliver benefits to the student, including:

  • Singing
  • Humming
  • Other vocal music techniques
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Playing a percussion instrument
  • Dance
  • Free movement
  • Musical improvisation

Some special education students may respond better to things like music composition, songwriting, lyric analysis, or music editing through a computer. Digital music software may be the best way to reach some students. 

Music appreciation classroom work or simply listening to and identifying different styles of music may work well for some students. 

Some music therapy educators may find their students respond best to audio-only stimuli. Other students may have better success when watching an orchestra or musician perform on video while also listening to the performance. They may need both visual and auditory stimulation.

Options to Deploy Music Therapy

Educators may introduce the student to a wide range of musical options, attempting to find what the student is drawn to. Once the educator finds an effective type of music, he or she may branch out to similar styles. 

For example, if a student responds well to drums in the percussion family, the instructor may try to branch out to bells, gongs, cymbals, and various sizes and styles of drums. As another option, a student who has an aptitude for mathematics in the special education classroom may appreciate the ability to study musical composition or to use a music editing software package.

What Music Therapy Is Not

Some schools that don’t have access to a licensed music therapist may consider offering some other music-related activities as an alternative. Understand that as the parent of a special education student working under an IEP, music therapy isn’t the same as other types of musical experiences. 

Schools may offer music classes and experiences that don’t truly fit under the description of actual music therapy. These exposures to music can be beneficial, but they don’t necessarily provide students with the same benefits as certified music therapy. 

Music Therapy for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder

For a student diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), music therapy may help in a wide range of areas, including:

  • Social interactions
  • Communications skills
  • Motor skills
  • Emotional functioning and expression
  • Academic skills
  • Self-regulation skills
  • Coping skills
  • Focus skills

Social skills development seems to work especially well under music therapy for students with ASD. Listening to music with other students helps with attention span and with engaging others in discussions about the music. Students also can learn to work as a team when they are making music together, which sparks communicative and social skill development.

Personalized Techniques

For some students with ASD, music therapy delivers a style of education and instruction that is appealing. These students often will appreciate the structure that comes with learning to read or play music, yet they also can experience the freedom to make their own choices regarding how they interpret or respond to the music.

Musical notes and instruments deliver a sense of consistency that some students with ASD need in their lives. When students use the same fingering technique on an instrument, they receive the same results every time, which can be comforting. 

For students with autism who are non-verbal, music may help them express themselves more successfully. 

Gaining a Sense of Accomplishment

Some children with ASD carry a heightened musical ability. They have a greater aptitude for understanding musical elements. 

Having success with music may give students with autism a greater sense of confidence about school. Being able to do something they love can provide a sense of accomplishment that they may struggle to receive in other areas of their educational and social lives.

Being able to keep up with peers musically can allow students with special needs to participate in mainstreaming during music classes. This can build confidence that may carry into other academic areas. 

Additionally, students often can see tangible progress with musical instruments that may not be as obvious to them in other areas of their academic lives. For example, a student may start out banging on a drum as loudly as possible, failing to keep a tempo or to change the force used to strike the drum to match the composition of the music.

As the student’s skills progress, though, he or she eventually will begin playing the drum at varying volume levels, matching what’s appropriate to the musical composition. The student may adjust speed to match the desired beat. The student may even learn to play several different types of drums.

When the student realizes the tangible improvement made over time, this provides a sense of pride and accomplishment. Additionally, the student will see success in areas like impulse control and self-expression as he or she makes strides with skills in playing the drum.

Helping With Healthy Emotional Releases

Even for students with ASD who don’t have a heightened level of success with musical aptitude, music therapy can deliver benefits that show up in other areas.

For example, students with autism who struggle to release their emotions in a healthy way may learn to do so with music. If the music makes the student feel happy or excited, dancing or singing along can be a healthy way to express these emotions. 

Music Therapy for Students With Behavioral Disorders

Students with behavioral disorders can also benefit from music therapy techniques. Music stirs emotions, therapists can use different types of music to evoke and cope with various emotions and self-regulation strategies. 

Students who need help with regulation can listen to slow-tempo music with gentle lyrics. Students who need to move physically with some dancing or who need a pick-me-up during the day would benefit from higher-tempo music that has quick lyrics.

Special education professionals appreciate the ability of music therapy to help students of widely varying ages who need help with their behavioral health in areas including:

Teen-age students and preschool students alike can benefit from music therapy. This is a useful tool specifically for a self-contained classroom where students of varying ages may be together throughout the day.

Preschool students struggling with developing language and hitting milestones similar to peers may find benefits from music therapy. Students who enjoy singing may find an ability to develop beginning language and communicative skills through music more effectively than they do through typical verbal communication.

When students have behavioral disorders related to trauma, music therapy encourages students to become engaged in a safe way. Students can express themselves in the manner that’s comfortable for them, whether that’s verbally through singing, nonverbally through musical instruments, or physically through dancing.

A student with a behavioral disorder who needs help with self-regulation often can develop healthy means of coping through the use of music. Sometimes, the music therapist will use music in the classroom to help a student refocus or to serve as a distraction when the student is struggling with controlling their behavior.

Music Therapy for Students Who Struggle With Memorization

Students who struggle with memorization may also benefit from music therapy. Memorization can be difficult for some students, and these issues may leave them lagging behind peers in some academic subjects.

To help with memorization, music therapists may recommend that students work on memorizing the lyrics of a favorite song or the notes to play on a musical instrument. Some students have more success with memorizing music than with traditional academic subjects. 

The techniques the student uses to improve his or her memorization when it comes to music can migrate over to academic subjects. Students also may become more confident about their ability to memorize items when they have success with music memorization, giving them the boost they need to advance in other areas of the classroom.

Music Therapy for Students With Physical Disorders

Students who need help with developing and maintaining strength and fine motor control often find music therapy beneficial. 

Dancing can be used to create muscle control, while also building strength. Students who may balk at more traditional types of physical education movements, such as running or playing sports, may appreciate dancing as a means of gaining physical fitness.

For students who are unable to stand or walk independently, dancing can happen from a sitting position. Moving the upper body to music can have many of the same benefits as standing and dancing. For students with cerebral palsy, for example, dancing while sitting can improve the motor functions in the extremities, including in the hands, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Help With Fine Motor Skills

The rhythm of music can help students learn to control their motor skills. Students who are able to clap their hands to the music or tap their toes may be able to gain fine motor skills that benefit them in other areas of life.

Even something as simple as learning to hold a drumstick or a rhythm instrument like a castanet can provide significant benefit for a student who struggles considerably with fine motor skills. For students who can handle musical instruments like trumpets or clarinets, learning fingering techniques deliver fine motor skill enhancement. 

Relieving Pain from Physical Disorders

Students who struggle with constant pain related to a physical disorder may find some pain relief through music therapy. Music can help students to feel less stress, which leads to improved muscle relaxation and reduced pain.

Some students simply need a distraction from pain and anxiety. Participation in music therapy programs can deliver this benefit, giving students a means of gaining control over the pain they’re feeling.


Music therapy delivers proven success in many cases. Certainly, music therapy doesn’t work for every student. It may deliver incredible results for one student and only sporadic improvements for a similarly aged student who has similar needs. But music therapy for special education students delivers enough successes in a wide range of situations that it deserves consideration.

For parents looking to spark results through the use of music therapy, consider including goals for this program in the child’s IEP. Schools often already have music therapy available for special education students, either inside the official school setting or through at-home instruction. But when they don’t, parents can suggest working toward implementing music therapy in the special education classroom.

You can also do a quick search for therapists and organizations in your local area. I’ve often been able to reach out and bring guest therapist in by working with my school’s administration and PTA.

I’d love to hear from you! Leave me a comment below or feel free to email me! I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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