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What is Therapeutic Listening? - Definition & Research

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Specialized music can be therapeutic for people with sensory dysfunctions, ADHD, and even Autism Spectrum Disorder. This lesson describes Therapeutic Listening, it's background, how it works, and which disorders it can help address.

What Is Therapeutic Listening?

Seven-year-old Andre is in a therapy session, but this isn't a typical talk therapy session. Andre is in a therapy room that looks more like a kid's gymnasium. He's on an exercise ball, rolling back and forth to the beat of the music that is playing through his headphones. This might not seem like therapy, but this is an example of what a session of Therapeutic Listening looks like.

Therapeutic Listening is an evidence-based form of therapy for individuals of any age (although it is mostly targeted toward kids). In this therapy, skills such as attention, sensory integration, social skills, communication, balance, and perceiving and navigating space are learned while listening to specialized music on headphones.

Therapeutic Learning is a specific therapy developed by Sheila Frick, a clinical pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Vital Links, an organization which focuses on helping occupational, physical, and speech therapists get continuing education in their fields. Frick created Therapeutic Listening in the hopes of helping individuals with sensory processing disorders as well as social, attention, and communication disorders.

The premise behind Therapeutic Listening is that the ear does not exist in a vacuum. The ear's function is not just to hear sounds; the auditory system is connected to other areas of the brain and can therefore affect brain functioning on many different levels. The therapeutic music is intended to stimulate these areas of brain functioning to improve behavior and sensory issues. Therapeutic Listening stimulates sensory integration within the central nervous system (CNS); sensory integration is the CNS's capability to absorb information from the environment and organize and process that information into meaningful data.

Background of Therapeutic Listening

The concept of Therapeutic Listening is not new. It is influenced and inspired by other listening programs intended to stimulate particular brain and sensory functioning. The concept of therapeutic listening was inspired by programs such as the Tomatis Listening Program, Auditory Integration Training, Samonas, and Sensory Integrative Framework.

How Does Therapeutic Listening Work?

So how does Therapeutic Listening Work? First of all, each client has their music individually engineered and altered depending upon their needs. For example, a child who has ADHD will need the part of their brain that controls attention exercised; their therapeutic music will be altered (by changing pitch, tone, or frequency) to stimulate and exercise that particular area.

The music for a child with ADHD might be specifically engineered to stimulate the frontal lobe, which is commonly associated with attention.
Image of areas of the brain

Just like a body builder does barbell curls to build his bicep muscles, the music in Therapeutic Listening is intended to exercise the muscles in the inner ear, the location of the vestibular system. Without the vestibular system, we would have much difficulty walking because our vestibular system helps us with balance and awareness of our bodies in space. So, Therapeutic Listening can stimulate the vestibular system and help people who have balance and spacial issues, as well as poor muscle tone, coordination, or posture.

The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and helps control balance and perception of space.
Image of vestibular system

Music exercising the vestibular system is just one example of how Therapeutic Listening can help a person, in this case with balance and perception of space. Music can also be altered to exercise the parts of the brain that are in charge of bodily functions, communication, organization, and social skills.

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