Welcome to the first post in the Why Music Therapy Works series! If you like this post, be sure to check out the other posts in the series!
Many music therapists find themselves working with young children at some point in their career. Simply put, the demand for music therapy services in this area is high and growing!
All of us, music therapists, parents, teachers, and the children themselves see how music therapy helps develop necessary skills for becoming successful, but the question I want to answer in this post is “Why?”
This is, of course, an area of ongoing research, and something I am interested in whenever I get to graduate school.
Music is Multimodal: The skills that we learn as young children are not limited to one sensory area. A baby hearing a sound and then looking for the source utilizes both auditory and visual processing, as well as the cognitive process to confirm that it was indeed the source of the sound. When the music therapist strums the guitar, the child will hear the sound (or feel the vibrations), look at it’s source, and wait for it to occur again to confirm it.
Music is Processes in Both Hemispheres of the Brain: Technology has finally caught up with music therapists. We’ve long known that music stimulated the brain in a unique way from working with our clients, but PET scans and other brain imaging technology has shown us that music is processed in both hemispheres of the brain, as opposed to primarily occurring on one side (like language). This enables our brain to utilize music as a way to learn skills that it may have struggled with before. I love to use speech as an example since many children struggle developing language conversationally, but can sing flawlessly. Parts of the brain that aren’t utilized during conversation “pick up the slack” when singing, and produce understandable and musical conversations.
Music Is Interesting: Music is interesting, not only because it sounds good, but because our brains LOVE patterns. When we experience an event (listening to music, opening our eyes, smelling something burning) our brain’s first job is to decide is the event is threatening. Music has a way of cruising right past all of those checkpoints to where we can consciously attend to and process it. If the pattern of music stays the same (same rhythm, same chords, same words), the brain can stop paying attention. However, since music generally doesn’t stay the same, the brain is constantly checking, processing, and learning from it since it is marked as non threatening. This is why children, both neurotypical and otherwise, have success learning skills through music.
Music Trains the Brain to Discriminate: Neuroplasticity is a term frequently heard in relation to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Stroke, and other neurological incidents. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s way to rewire it’s connections after an traumatic event like brain damage, or after a new experience (like realizing that the ocean is salty). Research has shown that training in music leads to changes throughout the auditory system that prepare the learner for auditory challenges other than music. Increased auditory processing anyone?
This list is not comprehensive by any means! But I hope it offers some insight into why music therapy works for young children. I’d love to hear your thoughts and additions in the comments!
American Music Therapy Association. (2006). Music therapy and individuals with diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Retrieved from http://musictherapy.org/factsheets/MT%20Autism%202006.pdf
Kraus, N, & Chandrasekaran, B. (2010). Science and society: music training for the development of auditory skills. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 599-605.
Moore, K.S. (2010, 03 18). The 3 neurotransmitters. Retrieved from http://www.musictherapymaven.com/video-the-3-neurotransmitters/