Can You Divorce Music from Sensory Processing?

Several weeks ago our good friend and colleague, Kimberly Sena-Moore published a blog article on entitled “Can You Divorce Music from Communication?” The article addresses whether music therapy should be used to address communication needs. It was a thoughtful and well-rounded look at the unique way that music inherently addresses verbal and non-verbal communication.

When I shared the article with our speech therapist colleagues, their immediate response was, “Why would you want to divorce music from communication?” This prompted me to wonder what our occupational therapy colleagues thought about music’s relationship to sensory processing. So I asked…. “Can you divorce music from sensory processing?” Their answer? An overwhelming, NO! After all, music is an art of sound that defines itself through AUDITORY discrimination. But what about all of the other elements of music that feed our sensory seeking selves?

  1. The obvious auditory component of music defines spatial concepts and helps the listener to discriminate between different sounds. This is part of you vestibular system and is contained within the inner ear. It plays a vital role in balance, coordination and also affects many other systems within the body. It is the vestibular system that allows us to be still and upright and have directional awareness.
  2. Rhythm is an organizer and assists with sequencing, attention, and cognition. People often talk about our own “internal rhythms”. These rhythms define our speech patterns, gait patterns, sleep patterns, etc. When provided an external rhythm through musical cues, the participant will typically change their patterns to fit that of the rhythm provided. Rhythm can elicit spontaneous speech, improved gait, and even assists with anticipation and expectation of events.
  3. Harmony and color introduce new and different frequencies in an interactive and non-threatening environment. The way our brains process the frequencies in music and other auditory experiences (sirens, alarms, birds chirping, doors slamming) allow for us to recognize and categorize the sounds we hear. Our brain makes a necessary neural connection, “Ok, that sound is the piano and that is the drum”.  The degree to which these different sensory systems are integrated will directly impact upon our ability to understand and interact with the outside world. Paying attention and focusing on a teacher’s voice can be very challenging if we are unable to sit still and ignore other visual and auditory information in a classroom.

More specifically, music helps the functioning of the brain stem and cortex. We don’t realize it, but we use the visual, auditory and vestibular systems together in order to successfully interact with and understand the world around us. And because of neuroplasticity (or the brain’s ability to change) music therapy is a non-invasive, and motivating way to address sensory functioning.

As a board certified music therapist and trained neurologic music therapist, it is within my scope of practice to use music to address my clients’ neurologic, cognitive and executive functions (decision making, problem solving). I am trained to address their ability to focus and maintain attention, generalize skills to other settings, control impulses, and improve motor skills, self-awareness, sensorimotor skills, and sensory perception. I don’t diagnose or evaluate sensory processing disorder. I assess and address sensory processing needs.

At The George Center we are lucky to have occupational therapists right here in our clinic with whom we can consult and collaborate. And by combining movement with a music therapy program designed for those with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, brain injuries, ADHD, and other neurologic impairments we can help integrate sensory information much more effectively.

Recommended Readings…

Ayres, A. J. (1972). Sensory integration and learning disorders. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

Berger, D.S. (2002). Music therapy, sensory integration, and the autistic child. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kranowiz, C. (2005). The out of sync child. New York:  The Penguin Group.

Sacks, O. (2006). The power of music. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 129, 2528–2532.


Want to know more about how music therapy can address sensory processing needs? We would be happy to chat with you or set up a FREE consultation!


Image credit: Flickr user digitalbob8