Music Activities for Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

Music activities are a great way to engage adults with developmental disabilities. Using one-on-one and group music activities allows you to engage adults in a fun way while practicing sensorimotor, cognitive, and social skills.

Music & Developmental Disabilities

The notion of using music activities with people who have developmental disabilities is not new. After World War II, musicians started working with veterans in hospitals. Doctors and musicians observed that working with patients through music had positive effects on both their physical and emotional well-being. In the 21st century, musical therapists work with many different kinds of people, including those with developmental disabilities.

Custom Songs

Teachers have long known that one way to help improve students' memory of material is by setting it to music. Hence, you might hear a child singing his or her way to 100, or about our 50 states. People with developmental disabilities can also benefit from singing. For example, you can create custom songs that help them work on their speech and communication or memory.

Songs to Improve Speech


  • Chose a sound or sound combination the adult needs to work on, like the sound of the letter 's', or a digraph sound, such as 'sh' or 'ch.'
  • Pick a tune that the developmentally disabled person is familiar with. Ask him or her about favorite songs or singers.
  • Rewrite the lyrics of a familiar or favorite song so it incorporates repetition of a challenging sound as much as possible. The more you can incorporate the sound into the words of the song, the more effective it will be in improving speech and communication.

Songs to Improve Memory

Another strategy for using custom songs is to improve the memorization of common information a person with developmental disabilities might be having trouble remembering. For example, some adults might struggle to remember their phone numbers or the directions for walking from their homes to a public library and back again.


  • Identify the information the developmentally disabled adult is having trouble remembering.
  • If it is something more complex, like directions, write it out as simply as possible.
  • Pick a tune that is easy to sing, such as 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' or 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' Popular songs are good too if they have a very clear, easy rhythm to follow.
  • Set the information to the tune of the song, being careful to adjust it as necessary, so it sticks to the tune.
  • Practice the song regularly with your client or student. Record the song so he or she can listen to it on an electronic device and practice it independently.

Music can engage adults with developmental disabilities using simple instruments.
music therapy

Musical Rewrites

Musical rewrites are a way to engage adults with developmental disabilities in the creative process. Prior to the start of the activity, pick a song that is easy for a group to sing, such as 'I've Been Working on the Railroad'; you'll also need an accompanist on guitar or piano or an instrumental recording.


  • Explain to the group that you're all going to rewrite a song and that each person in the group will be making up lyrics.
  • Sing the song once or twice so everyone is familiar with the melody.
  • When you get to a key word, like 'railroad', point to someone in the group. He or she then adds a new phrase to the lyric.
  • Continue singing the song, pointing to a different person each time. Depending on the ability of the group, you may have them fill in a single phrase or more of the verse.

Group Music Activities

Adults with developmental disabilities may struggle to interact with other people for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to engage them in group music activities and provide a forum for interactions to occur. The benefit of these sorts of activities is that they can be used to help adults build social skills, including making eye contact, greeting others, and even taking turns.

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