Adapted Music Lessons vs. Music Therapy

Sometimes the parents of special needs students do not know whether adapted music lessons or music therapy will be the best fit for their child. When the student has a developmental disability (such as when he/she has Down Syndrome, is mentally challenged, or is in the autistic spectrum – especially at the classic or so called “low functioning” end of the spectrum) the answer will depend on what the strengths and challenges of the student are (students with Asperger’s Syndrome, Nonverbal Learning Disorder, and mild to moderate Autism Spectrum Disorder generally do well in the lessons), but first let’s look at the differences between adapted music lessons and music therapy.

The biggest difference between music education and music therapy is that in music education the main goal is learning musical skills, while in music therapy the non-musical goals outweigh the musical goals. In other words, a music therapist may teach a student a song to help him to remember how to tie his shoes, or sing a song with him so he can work on saying a particular consonant that he struggles to say more clearly, or to help get out strong feelings attached to a traumatic experience. The music therapist does not usually teach music, but uses music to work on other non-musical skills. On the other hand, in music education it might be nice that learning to read music and play an instrument can have a beneficial impact on a student’s school work and cognitive development, but the most important objectives are learning to read music and play an instrument. The music itself is the goal.

Betsey King Brunk, in the book, Music Therapy: Another Path to Learning and Communication for Children in the Autism Spectrum, goes into some detail about the differences between music therapy and adapted music lessons, “Music therapy is the use of music and music related strategies to work on non-musical goals. Music therapy is practiced by board certified specialists who have learned how to use music for cognitive, physical, and emotional goals…

“Adapted music lessons, like all music education programs, focus on teaching musical skills, such as proficiency on an instrument… Adapted music lessons may be provided by music educators (like piano teachers)… Daily practice at home is usually part of adapted music lessons.

“How do I know if my child will be ready to participate in adapted music lessons? The answer to this question can come from two different sources – your knowledge of your child’s strengths and weaknesses; and a trial period of instruction with a music teacher. Learning to play an instrument requires, among other things, (1) the ability to follow simple directions, (2) some degree of fine motor control and coordination, and (3) the ability to store and recall information from one lesson to another. A music teacher who offers adapted music lessons will look at these skills and may offer a trial period during which everyone involved can see how your child would respond. Much will depend on the instrument that is chosen – each one requires different abilities” (p. 103 – 104).

The autoharp is ideal for teaching developmentally delayed students. Some students with special needs will find that an instrument like the guitar can be too challenging. This is particularly true of Down Syndrome students. The autoharp is a substitute for the guitar that is possibly within the reach of Down Syndrome and other developmentally delayed students. In the early stages, the order of most difficult to least difficult to teach goes: guitar, piano, then autoharp. In typical learner students, the difference in difficulty between the guitar and piano will probably not be noticed, but difficulty is a real factor when deciding which instrument to choose for your special needs child, and the autoharp is the easiest of the three to learn. I have special needs students who have low expressive language skills that do fine on piano, but it all depends on how good the student’s receptive language skills are, and therefore it is a matter of knowing your child.

Brunk points out the things to look for in an instructor who teaches adapted music lessons, “Ask yourself: Can this teacher break down skills into smaller tasks that my child can master? Does the teacher have patience with unpredictable behavior? Does this teacher use positive reinforcement, and will he or she use it with greater frequency if my child needs it? Is this teacher comfortable with a slower rate of progress than that which other students may achieve? (Many children in adapted music lessons make the same progress as students in ‘regular’ lessons – but do it over a longer period of time)” (p. 104 – 105).

I am a music educator, not a music therapist. I have taught adapted music lessons, using specialized multisensory teaching techniques, to students who are intellectually challenged, have Down Syndrome and ACC, and are classic autistic. My methods work best when the student communicates at least at the level of a four to five year old typical learner, but I have found that this level of communication is not critical. It is not mandatory for the student to have a large vocabulary, but what is important is that the student can understand and follow basic instructions: such as, “…place your hands here…” or be able to answer yes/no questions such as “…do you understand?” The student also has to be able to sit still for several minutes at a time.

If you are not sure if your child is ready to take music lessons, I have a Two-Free-Lessons promotional. We can meet and find out if adapted music lessons will be right for your child. Alternately, for intellectually challenged and classic autistic students, as well as students with other developmental disabilities, you can try out Pamela Ott’s book, Music for Special Kids. Most of the book deals with music therapy activities that parents can do with their children, but Chapter 3 (the section entitled Keyboard), Chapter 6 (Rhythm Activates), and Chapter 9 (Musical Concepts) discuss strategies for teaching music to special needs children. In her own words, “When I began working with special needs children, I introduced them to rhythm primarily through auditory exercises… My goal was to use music to work on non-musical objectives and in the process many of them began to learn note names and notated rhythm” (p. 115). Music For Special Kids’ chapters are fairly basic, but they can give you enough of a start to see if your child is ready for adapted music lessons with a teacher.

If adapted music lessons are not appropriate for your child, then you might consider music therapy instead. Having fun and self expression can be goals of a music therapy session. Below is a list of music therapists in Massachusetts. If you do not live in Massachusetts go to to find a music therapist in your area.

Lauren Caso, MT-BC
Wakefield, MA, USA
Phone: 781-246-9150
Autism, LD, Developmentally Disabled

Kayla C. Daily
Worcester, MA, USA
Phone: 508-304-2415
Developmentally Disabled

Christina L. Grandoni
West Newbury, MA, USA
Phone: 978-807-5716

Kimberly Khare
Community Music Center of Boston
Boston, MA, USA
Phone: 617-482-7494 x25
Web Site:

Eve D. Montague
Bryantville, MA, USA
Phone: 781-293-3926
Autism, LD, Developmentally Disabled

Meredith Pizzi
Melrose, MA, USA
Phone: 781-665-0700
Web Site:
Autism, LD, Developmentally Disabled


Brunk, Betsy King. Music Therapy: Another Path to Learning and Communication for Children in the Autism Spectrum. Arlington: Future Horizons, 1999.

Ott, Pamela. Music for Special Kids. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011.

© 2014 Geoffrey Keith