Music in School Aged Children with Developmental Delays

Music in School Aged Children with Developmental Delays

As a practitioner in the field of music therapy, you become fairly used to the question ‘what is music therapy?’ Most music therapists have a standard response and mine goes something along the lines of, “Well, music is incredible. It is intuitive to our neurobiology. Our brains are wired for systems, patterns, and creativity and music has the ability to span all of these areas and create new neural networks that can overcome injury and disability through a process called neuroplasticity. It works in our emotional, regulatory, circulatory, motor, cognitive and other systems and as able to tie them all together. Not to mention, it’s fun!” While this is a good and concise answer, it only scratches the surface. Music therapy is an evidence-based profession. “Evidence-based practice in education and therapy refers to the use of scientific studies as a basis for determining the best practices… a practice that is most appropriate… a technique or methodology that, through experience and research, has reliably led to a desired or optimum result (303).” In this review, I will be focusing on research dealing with the cognitive and academic success using music to reach non-musical goals as stated in Adamek and Darrow’s book, Music in Special Education. They define “music research in special education as ‘the study of music behaviors of disabled children and youth (infant-21), including the study of the functional use of music to reach non-musical learning out-comes.’ Research in special education has documented music-related outcomes with students who have a variety of special needs. Research in this area contains both musical and nonmusical goals (303).”


Included in this research analysis are 64 studies that met the criteria for inclusion which excluded single-subject cases. These studies were compiled and analyzed to discover the effectiveness of MT with the special education population. This population included developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, autism, emotional behavioral disorders, specific learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, sensory impairments, and orthopedic impairments. The researchers found significant difference (statistically p<.05) in reaching non-musical goals as follows (320):

62.5% significantly effective

14.3% effective

6.3 % non-significantly effective

3.2% anecdotal significance only

These studies used a variety of methods including vocal, instrumental, movement activities, music learning as a contingency, and music listening as structure or cue. It is important to remember that individually, these studies vary widely and are not measuring the same outcomes using similar methods, therefore, discrepancy in effectiveness is to be expected. However, a majority were found to be significantly effective.


It can be assumed that this report is unbiased as it includes a mix of peer-reviewed and unpublished studies and that it communicates support of music therapy to reach non-musical goals, particularly within academic efforts for school aged children. Activities included singing, playing instruments, moving to music, listening to music, songwriting, using sign language to music, and musical games, all of which and more can be found daily at The George Center for Music Therapy. “The value of music therapy stems from its universal appeal and versatility. Music activities can be adapted to engage a wide range of individuals, regardless of their ages, abilities, or musical preferences. Music can be used to address cognitive, academic, social, emotional, physical, communication, and behavioral through a medium that many students enjoy and find motivating… Such findings will increase and enhance the learning opportunities to students with varying exceptionalities (323).”


Adamek, M. S., & Darrow, A. (2008). Music in special education. S.l.: AMTA.

Hannah Rhinehart LPMT, MT-BC

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