Can Music Therapy Benefit My Child?

There’s science behind why you feel the way you do when listening to your favorite song. Music therapy capitalizes on that brain science (combined with a bit of musical magic) to help people, including children with complex medical needs, improve their health and well-being.

MRI brain imaging of people while they listen to music is helping researchers understand how music affects us. “Music lights up the brain in a different way than regular dialogue,” says Jennifer Gossett, a music therapist based in Charleston, South Carolina. Gossett works with children living with complex rare diseases.

What is a Music Therapist?

A board-certified music therapist is someone who has completed an approved credential program. They use music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs. For example, music therapy can help children improve their:

  • coordination
  • relationship skills
  • stress-management skills
  • ability to express feelings
  • memory
  • communication skills

When therapists work with children one-on-one, they assess each child and develop a treatment plan. “Sometimes, I’m developing a plan based on information I receive from parents and other times, I am working with a child’s care team, such as speech therapists, physical therapists (PTs), occupational therapists (OTs), and others,” says Gossett.

Typically, music therapy is one piece in your child’s larger treatment plan. “It doesn’t replace speech or OT or PT. It’s a real team approach. All of us work together to create even better outcomes for children,” she says. “More people are starting to understand what music therapists can do and how this type of therapy can serve as an additional component,” says Gossett. According to Gossett, music therapy has become more popular in recent years.

In fact, music therapists may also be important members of your child’s educational team, as well as their in-patient hospital team. When music therapists join classrooms, they use activities such as taking turns that build social skills. Music can motivate students to participate, help them practice skills, and retain information. In hospitals, a child life specialist may bring in a music therapist to play the guitar before a patient undergoes surgery to ease anxiety, or therapists may use music during rehab sessions.

How does music therapy affect the brain?

Music stimulates the brain in various ways. Whether it is a classical piece by Bach or a new hit by Beyonce, the brain works hard to interpret the many sounds in music. “Music is structural, mathematical, and architectural,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. “It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.”

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School used imaging technology to study people’s brains while they listen to music. This study, along with several other studies, found that music activates different parts of the brain, including:

  • auditory, visual, and motor cortices
  • the cerebellum, involved in rhythm, timing, and fine-tuning movement
  • the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres and is involved in movement control, cognitive functions, and vision
  • grey matter, involved in movement, memory, and emotions
  • white matter, involved in learning language and music
  • emotional reward structures, such as the amygdala, orbitofrontal, and anterior cingulate cortex
  • memory reward structures in the hippocampus
  • mesolimbic reward structures
Image of the brain outlining the various areas music affects
Credit: Dr.

The brain changes structurally and functionally when you listen to music. Repeat exposure has a more profound effect over time. Also, different musical genres and sounds activate different pathways. If you think of the neural pathways in the brain as connected roads, sometimes—whether due to neurological disorders or trauma—there are roadblocks. Research has shown that, in some cases, music can hop those barriers to create new connecting roads. This is especially true in areas of the brain involved with emotional processing, abstract thinking, attention, reward, and motivation.

In 2020, researchers reviewed the results of 86 studies that examined how music therapy benefits communication in children with autism and developmental disabilities. Results often included increased verbal and nonverbal responses to music, more engagement and participation in peer groups, increased attention, and more use of appropriate nonverbal communication.

Another study in 2019 examined the impact of music therapy on children living with Rett syndrome. The study included 11 children and lasted 24 weeks. The children’s receptive language, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, and social interaction improved.

What happens during a private music therapy session?

Treatment plans and sessions depend on a child’s abilities. Children usually have opportunities to vocalize during songs or play with instruments. For example, they may bang on drums. “I am always trying to involve a child who I am working with in some way,” says Gossett. That might mean playing a song that requires some participation, like “Old McDonald,” or playing music that they enjoy, like Taylor Swift, that gets their eyes to move ever so slightly over to her. However, Gossett says the goal of music therapy is not to teach children how to sing or play an instrument. “The goals of music therapy are nonmusical,” she says, and the sessions are focused on each child’s individual needs.

“Every child is so different, and what they respond to is so different, but no matter what disability they have, I can’t imagine that music wouldn’t be helpful,” says Whitney Reafler, whose Daughter, Dori, attends sessions with Gosset. “It’s certainly worth trying it for three months or six months just to see how your child responds.” Dori is 16 and has a CASK gene mutation, a rare disorder that results in an intellectual disability affecting her verbal ability, mobility, and coordination. Reafler, who lives in South Carolina, enrolled Dori in music therapy from ages 4 to 9 years old and again when she was 13. “We decided to try it because she loves music,” says Reafler.

When working with children with complex medical needs, Gossett says she often works on connecting body movements to sound. For example, she worked with a young girl with Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder affecting a child’s ability to speak, walk, eat, and breathe. “Her hands were constantly in a fist, and I knew that she was working with her other therapists to open and close her hands,” says Gossett.

Using a song about turning Christmas lights on and off, Gossett encouraged the girl to open and close her hands to the music. After a few sessions, she did it in unison with the lyrics. “Her mom said that she credits me and that song for helping her daughter with her hand skills,” she says. “Music is a great tool because it is motivating and it is fun. It can get a child to practice a skill without feeling like it’s hard work or boring.”

With Dori, the initial plan included blowing into a kazoo, which can help with oral motor skills and breathing. “Dori’s occupational and speech therapists worked forever to get her to blow a kazoo,” says Reafler. “Then the music therapist worked with her, and she did it. I didn’t believe her and had her send me a video. And sure enough, she is blowing into the kazoo.”

Reafler says since starting music therapy, Dori vocalizes and imitates others more while listening to music. “If someone is singing in a low voice, she will lower her voice,” says Reafler. Dori can also connect certain songs with specific hand movements. She can select songs on her AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) device that she wants to hear—she prefers reggae songs and doesn’t like country music. “She finds music interesting, and it is something that she can participate in,” she says. Likewise, those around her are able to use music to learn about her likes, dislikes and encourage her to express those preferences.

Dori Reafler with her music therapist, Gossett.
Credit: Whitney Reafler | Dori Reafler

Gossett also encourages social interaction. Every week, Dori has a 30-minute private session with Gossett. Then a friend joins, and they have another 30-minute session together. When Dori and her friend share a session, they take turns with instruments. “It’s interactive and fun for her,” says Reafler. “She doesn’t communicate verbally with words, but during music therapy, she is communicating with sounds and taking turns.”

At home, Reafler uses music to calm Dori. If she starts getting upset, Reafler sings one of her favorite songs. Often, it can distract her enough to stop a meltdown. “Music has been a really good benefit for her emotional regulation,” Reafler says.

What are the additional benefits of music therapy?

Aside from potential benefits in changes to brain structure and function, other examples of positive outcomes include aiding in sensory stimulation and emotional expression and processing.

Sensory Stimulation: Music therapy can help children who get overstimulated easily.

Gossett worked with a child who did not like loud noises, for example. She started with a small, quiet wind chime and, over time, introduced a larger, louder wind chime to their sessions.

“Someone looking at our sessions on the outside might say, ‘Why does it matter if you can progress towards listening to a bigger wind chime? Why is that a skill that they need for their life?’ It isn’t, but our goal is to help a child transfer that noise tolerance into other settings,” says Gossett. If they hear an overstimulating sound out in the world, the goal is for them to use their music therapy skills to work through that discomfort and agitation.

Emotional Expression and Processing: For children who have difficulty putting their emotions into words, music therapy can offer a place to start.

Gossett works closely with a speech therapist. She was called in, for example, to work with a young boy who lives with a disorder that causes Gestalt Language Processing. This means a child learns words by memorizing phrases that include that word. This particular child could quote movies and TV shows word for word, but he had difficulty expressing his needs.

“We started making tiny songs that were short but had a functional phrase that served a purpose for him,” says Gossett. For example, when he became frustrated because he wanted a purple car but could only find the blue car, Gossett introduced a song with the lyrics: “Help me, help me, I need help.”

“I sang it a few times, and he started to pick up on it and use it,” says Gossett. The goal is for him to use this technique in different situations so that he can begin to learn ways to ask for what he needs.

Where to find a music therapist

If you think your child might benefit from music therapy, talk to your child’s doctors, practitioners, or educators to see if they have recommendations. A college or university that trains music therapists may be able to provide contacts to graduates. The Certification Board for Music Therapists maintains a list of music therapists.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, the national average music therapy session costs $77 an hour. The rate varies based on location and therapists’ experience. Medicare and Medicaid pay for music therapy services when your child is in-patient in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, but coverage varies for ongoing, private sessions. Health insurance often does not cover music therapy, but coverage can vary.

Bottom line

Music therapy has proven scientific benefits for the brain, and it can help your child improve in unexpected ways. It can also be a lot of fun for children! For Reafler and her daughter, music therapy continues to both support and surprise them on their often unpredictable rare disease journey. “We don’t know what Dori is going to look like in a year, never mind 10 years, but when I look back at her progress over the past few years, I credit music therapy,” she says. “It’s just something that I am glad she has, because it’s helped her with certain skills. But it’s also an outlet for her and a form of expression.”

References and Further Reading

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