Teaching Strategies for Music Therapy

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are a special education teacher interested in incorporating music therapy into your work, it can help to have some meaningful strategies to start with. This lesson introduces some big ideas and techniques for music therapy in the classroom.

The Role of Music Therapy

Patrick is a special education teacher in an inclusive educational setting, one where students with special needs learn alongside typically developing peers. Patrick's students have a wide variety of capacities and needs, and he is always looking for different strategies he can use to help them.

Lately, Patrick has become really interested in creative approaches to working with his students. For instance, he has learned that music therapy, or therapeutic interventions involving songs and rhythms, can be very emotionally meaningful to many students.

This makes sense to Patrick; after all, music can be very evocative of emotion and quite communicative even in the absence of language. He sets out to learn more about different strategies that he can use to incorporate music therapy into his classroom.

Setting Goals

First, Patrick learns that, just as in any other pedagogical approach, it is important to set goals for music therapy. Every child has different needs, and Patrick has to orient his goals and then his approaches in accordance with these needs.

For instance, if a child is really in need of help socializing with others, Patrick might make a goal of music therapy to help with interpersonal interaction. For other students, using music to calm down or to express difficult emotions might be a more relevant goal.

Patrick learns of the following ways that music therapy can help students with disabilities:

  • It can help students with autism move past monotonic speech, or speaking robotically and in a single tone.
  • It can help students with ADHD focus their attention and gain executive function skills.
  • For students with cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities, music therapy can help with muscle relaxation and gross motor movement.
  • For students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities, music therapy can aid memory and provide a different entry point into language and reading.

The goals Patrick sets are crucial as he chooses what techniques to put into place.

Drumming and Other Instrumental Work

Patrick learns about the important role instruments can play in music therapy. He starts by learning about drumming, because he knows that beating on a drum can provide a tremendous sensory outlet for students in need of a mode of expression.

Patrick also knows that drumming can be cathartic and helpful in terms of expressing aggressive feelings. He also has other instruments available, including a keyboard, maracas, a guitar, and a recorder.

When Patrick works with instruments with his students, he asks them to handle the instrument gently and appropriately, but try to express their feelings in relation to different scenarios he offers them. He shows them how to use the instrument as a way of communicating with them and learning more about their approach to authority.

When Patrick's students become more comfortable with instruments, he lets them play at the beginning and end of each class, and he finds this helps them build a connection.


Patrick also uses singing frequently in his teaching. He asks students to sing songs they love and talk to him about what they are drawn to in these songs.

He also teaches his students to hum and otherwise vocalize as a way of self-regulating and managing challenging emotions. Patrick sings alongside his students as a way of connecting with them and showing them how harmony can work, which often helps them develop relational skills.

Receptive Interventions

Patrick also knows that receptive interventions can play a big role in music therapy. In other words, just listening to music passively, rather than making it, can be really important for students.

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