Music and Musical Instruction Prove Beneficial for People with Mental Impairments

While most everyone is aware of the fact that autism brings many challenges and obstacles to the lives of those affected by the disorder, there are many facests of autism that people are not aware of.

One such characteristic of autism is the fact that most autistic children have little to no impairment in musical ability. This is largely due to the fact that most people who have autism are more severely affected in the left hemisphere of their brains. The left hemisphere is the more verbally inclined part of the brain, while the right hemisphere is responsible for functions employed in such areas as art, music, and abstract mathematics.

Children with autism often have a great deal of difficulty recognizing the emotional tone in verbal speech, yet almost all of them can easily tell the difference between “happy” and “sad” music. (1) They often have a high degree of enjoyment for music because it is easier for them to relate to and decode music than it is for them to take part in verbal dialogues. They often display a great aptitude for remembering song lyrics and are more likely to initiate a conversation through singing than through speech. Additionally, greater motivation and attention, as well as a higher level of emotional engagement when taking part in musical activities is often seen in children with autism.

Recent studies have revealed that there is an area within the right hemisphere of the brain that mirrors the part of the left brain responsible for interpreting letters and words. This part is responsible for understanding musical notes and passages of notes. (1) Some ability of transfer has been seen by which the right hemisphere can assist in verbal functions when the left is incapacitated. This is evidenced by the fact that some people with severe stutters resulting from brain damage or otherwise are able to sing unimpeded, such as the famous country music star Mel Tillis. Medical professionals say that these cases indicate that musical training can be highly beneficial in enabling the right hemisphere of the brain to acquire left hemisphere abilities.  Such activities as playing/singing music to a young child or having them do the singing themselves (as well as dancing or taking part in other rhythmic activities ) could very well aid in developing the neurological structures needed for the learning of language.

Piano lessons have proven very helpful for both high functioning autistic children as well as people who are not mentally impaired in improving verbal and communication abilities. Many areas of cognitive function are improved such as auditory processing, memory, bilateral coordination, and fine motor skills. (1)

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) of the United Kingdom completed an analysis of autistic children’s musical abilities which helped them to discover that the majority of children with autism have an excellent level of proficiency in tone recognition. Dr Pamela Heaton of the ESRC was quoted as saying, “A lot of work has been done on musical autistic savants with exceptional musical memory and rarely found absolute perfect pitch ability. However, our research shows that even non savant autistic children without these special talents and no musical training can have highly developed musical ‘splinter skills’. If we could develop effective non verbal musical training methods, we might be able to understand more about the way these children learn and process other information.” (2)

During the same investigation, a group of juveniles with autism and a group of non autistic juveniles were tested with a series of musically related tasks. One such test consisted of the subjects using a touch screen laptop to identify notes by moving an image of a child up and down a flight of stairs. The autistic children were especially interested in this and they were able to complete the test with 89% accuracy as compared to the 30% accuracy achieved by the control group. (2)

This further points out the advanced attention to detail and analytical listening abilities possessed by many autistic children which can be honed further through immersion in music and musical training.

While children with autism have time and again been proven to  benefit from involvement with music, the positive change that music can bring into lives is not only limited to those with autism. A 2009 article in the Chicago Tribune details the strides made by two young women through musical training. One of these young women has Down Syndrome and the other is afffected by attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The first person the article introduces to the reader is 21-year-old Lizzi Gottleib. Lizzi has Down Syndrome and she has been playing the flute ever since she was ten years old. According to her parents, learning to play the flute has brought out talents in their daughter which had previously been hidden and has greatly bolstered her self esteem. She is now capable of playing literally hundreds of songs, some with the aid of sheet music and some from memory. Bob Liebman, Lizzi’s flute teacher, asserts that teaching her to play the flute has helped her to not only gain joy and emotional release, but also has helped her immensely in her communication skills and in her ability to process information in new ways. (3) He goes on to mention the fact that music is non threatening and it surrounds us everywhere, allowing everyone to participate, regardless of whatever disability they may or may not have.

Also mentioned in the article is Rebekah Cope, a violin teacher. She has been providing private lessons for many years and has come to the realization that many of her most talented and enthusiastic students are those with ADHD. One of these is a 17 year old girl named Karlita.  Karlita has mastered the violin, as well as six other musical instruments and is currently taking on learning to play the viola as her next project. While she often takes longer to learn the lessons than Cope’s other students, Karlita is always head and shoulders above the rest after a few weeks of practicing in her own unique way, which Cope has helped her to develop. Though Karlita prefers one-on-one lessons due to her tendency to become distracted by other students, her musical training has helped her learn to concentrate more efficiently and has developed a higher degree of self-control.

In addition, the article points out the fact that more and more students with disabilities are being signed up for music lessons, both for instruments and voice than ever before. This is partially due to the  ability of music to engage and challenge the auditory, motor, and visual function of the brain through listening, reading, notes, and manually playing musical instruments. Listening to music has also been proven to stimulate the areas of the brain in responsible for paying attention, making predictions, and updating memory, according to Vinod Menon, associate professor of psychiatry, behavioral science, and neurosciences at Stanford University. He continues to state that making music is a good way to “engage multiple networks in the brain”.(3)

With all of the benefits of musical training being discovered by medical professionals and by private citizens for those with disabilities, it is no wonder that enrollment for people with special needs is increasing exponentially. Much work and research remains to be done, but it seems that right now we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the wonders that music and music lessons can work for people with special needs.

  1. Bennet, Sue “Gifted and Disabled” Autism Coach www.autismcoach.com/gifted_with_learning_disabilitie.htm
  2. Economic and Social Research Council. “Autistic Children Show Outstanding Musical Skills”. May 27, 2004
  3. Music Therapy: Teachers Strike and Emotional Chord With Disabled Students. Chicago Tribune. December 21,2009
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