Music: A Therapeutic Tool for Children with Special Needs- Nina Wollersberger, Polly Harris

Polly Harris

MSc Music Therapy

Nina Wollersberger

MSc Music Therapy

Music therapy is ‘the use of music within a therapeutic relationship which aims at restoring, maintaining and furthering emotional, physical and mental health’ (DMtG 2016)

The practice of music therapy, as outlined in this definition, is multi-faceted and frequently changes according to the needs of the client group. This often poses complications and variations in how music therapy is understood, described and practiced. There are however, aspects of the work which remain consistent and offer a framework of understanding. Firstly, it is important to recognise music as a psychotherapeutic tool within the context of music therapy, used to obtain non-musical goals with people of varying ages and diagnoses. The theoretical foundations of music therapy are the same as for other psychotherapies, with the addition of music as a tool to build the therapeutic relationship. Music therapists therefore, study developmental and psychoanalytic theories which underpin the understanding their client’s process. A common misconception is that music is used by music therapists as a means of education, to improve musical, instrumental and performance skills. In actuality, the focus remains on the emotional health of the client and engendering positive change through their relationship with the therapist. In order to facilitate such a relationship, interactive music-making becomes a central part of the music therapy process. Rather than exclusively using receptive methods, the client and therapist improvise and engage with the instruments together, building a shared creative experience within which the client can feel emotionally supported.

Having established an understanding of music therapy and how it is used within social, educational and healthcare settings, the question remains, how can music be used as a therapeutic tool for children with special needs? To structure this discussion, the six core beliefs of music therapy, as observed by Darnley-Smith and Patey (2003, pp. 36-37), will be explored.

1. That music is a universal medium whose elements of rhythm, pitch, timbre and melody are found worldwide

Fundamental to the practice of music therapy, is that music is common to all cultures across the world and breaks down the barriers of language. Musical elements, such as melody and harmony are found in all genres, across all musical cultures, and offer a universal language in which children with special needs can engage with.

2. That music can be very broadly defined as being any vocal, instrumental or mechanical sounds that have rhythm, melody or harmony

Within the practice of music therapy, the definition of music is broadened to be flexible and all inclusive. The music therapist accepts and responds to what the client brings to the therapy space, whether it is music played in the ‘traditional’ sense, or sounds and noises produced in a less conventional way. The process is based on the central principle that all humans are innately musical and anyone can make music. As a result, traditional expectations of musicianship are superseded by the belief that all children, regardless of ability or special needs, are able to engage in meaningful music-making.

3. That psychological, neurological and physiological responses to music may remain unimpaired by illness or injury

As well as the natural ability to make music, music therapy is based on the assumption that everyone has the innate ability to respond to music, regardless of illness or injury. This includes children with learning disabilities, whose ability to engage with the therapeutic process is unimpaired by their diagnoses. People respond to music differently; Psychologically, neurologically and physiologically. In terms of psychologically, people form emotional connections to music, which offer differ accordingly to the person and their individual experiences. A neurological response refers to the way in which music is processed in many different areas of the brain; Even if part of the brain is affected by injury, it still has the capacity to respond to music in some way. Lastly, a physiological response to music is demonstrated in a person’s heart rate, breathing and blood pressure which can all be affected by musical stimuli. With these responses in mind, music therapists consider how a child with special needs may be experiencing the music within a session. All responses, in whatever way they are communicated, are accepted and worked with within the therapeutic space.

4. That the use of sound as an expressive medium pre-dates the acquisition of language

Acknowledging the pre-verbal aspect of music is especially important when working with children with special needs, as it recognises an individual’s natural ability to respond to music with or without the use of words. Within the practice of music therapy, therapists often rely on non-verbal means of communication to develop a therapeutic relationship. Through the music-making, one is able to relate and interact with all people regardless of their ability to speak or understand language. Music offers an alternative way to express oneself when words are not possible or too difficult. Every child from birth has an innate ability to interact non-verbally and it is assumed within the practice of music therapy that these children with learning disabilities are able to communicate effectively through music. As a result, the music therapist offers a child the opportunity to be understood through the use of music and sound, meeting the child at their level of communication, regardless of their additional needs.

5. That the act of making sounds freely upon musical instruments provides a non-verbal means of communication and self-expression which embodies or expressed a person’s whole self

In providing children with a mode of communication, music therapy uses music as a means of self-expression and exploration. As some children with special needs may not be able to communicate their feelings verbally, music can be a unique way of expression that is accessible to everyone. In addition to being a replacement for words, as explored previously, music can also express those things that cannot be put into words. In order to explore self-expression in music therapy, the act of spontaneous music making is used to express conscious and unconscious processes. The technique of clinical improvisation becomes central to the practice of music therapy, in which “the use of musical improvisation in an environment of trust and support established to meet the needs of clients (Wigram 2004, p.370). In music therapy the objective of clinical improvisation is to musically ‘meet’ the client. Two of the main techniques used to achieve this are mirroring and matching. The former is the act of “doing exactly what the client is doing musically, expressively and through body language at the same time as the client is doing it. The client will then see his or her own behaviour in the therapist’s behaviour” (Wigram 2004, p.82). Through mirroring, it is hoped that the child will become increasingly aware of themselves and the emotions they are reflecting within the therapeutic space. On the other hand, matching the client refers to the process of “improvising music that is compatible, matched or fits in with client’s style of playing whilst maintaining the same tempo, dynamic, texture quality and complexity of other musical elements” (Wigram 2004, p.84). This technique is more focussed on developing the child’s awareness of the therapist, as well as themselves within the emotional space.

6. That a wide range of feelings and emotions may be experienced in response to musical sounds, whether pre-composed or improvised

Lastly, everyone has a personal relationship with music, based on their background, experience and culture. Often in music therapy, pre-composed music and songs are used as a therapeutic tool to understand the clients and their relationship with music, as well as provide a channel of self-expression and exploration. Children’s songs often serve as an initial musical-meeting point in music therapy sessions with uniquely-abled children.

These six core beliefs can serve as a method of understanding the practices of music therapy, especially when working with differently-abled children, and how music can serve as a therapeutic tool to facilitate positive change. Participants in the session at the CMTAI annual conference were given the opportunity to experience these elements of music therapy through experiential activities and video clips.


DARNLEY-SMITH, R. and PATEY, H. M., 2003. Music therapy. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Deutsche Musiktherapeutische Gesellschaft, 2016. Definition [online]. [viewed 10

April 2017]. Available from:


WIGRAM, T., 2004. Improvisation: Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators and Students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Nina is originally from Austria and the U.S., though she grew up in Germany where she studied the clarinet and taught herself guitar. Nina moved to the UK for her higher education, completing a Bachelor’s degree in music at Durham University before training as a music therapist at Queen Margaret University in Scotland. While studying Nina worked as a support worker and music practitioner for adults with autism. Her master’s dissertation studied the music therapy experiences of Second World War survivors including aspects of identity and relationships.

Upon qualifying with distinction in 2017 Nina began working with NHS Lothian, piloting new music therapy projects as well as working in the core services including Older People’s Mental Health and the Children’s Music Therapy Service. Within these services Nina worked with a wide range of client groups including older people with dementia, children with autism and complex needs, and young people with mental ill health. During this time Nina also worked as a private music therapist in social care settings. Nina is passionate about travel and experiencing new cultures and has thus travelled extensively across Europe, the U.S. and Asia. She first visited India five years ago and had a wonderful experience staying in Palampur and travelling around the Golden Triangle. Thus she is thrilled to have the opportunity to live and work in New Delhi with The Music Therapy Trust this year.

Polly Harris is a recently qualified music therapist. She graduated from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, with an MSc in Music Therapy, having written her dissertation on the role of music therapy within a mainstream secondary school. During this time, she worked specifically with adolescents diagnosed with ADHD and Autism. Polly has particular interest in the use of music to interact and engage with children with additional support needs. She has been involved in several community music projects across Scotland, with both children and adults, promoting the use of music to engender positive change and facilitate personal development. Prior to her training as a music therapist, Polly completed a bachelors degree in music, studying the harp, and is an enthusiastic musician and teacher, enjoying music from all over the world. She has travelled to The Gambia on many occasions to deliver music workshops to children in a local school, supporting the development of communication and language skills through music and imaginative learning. In addition to this, Polly has worked in Greece as part of a community music project with refugee children, based in both Athens and Leros, and is interested in how music can be used to support those experiencing trauma. Polly is now very much looking forward to her role with The Music Therapy Trust and the new experiences it will bring.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s