Monday, 29 January 2018 14:46

How Music Can Enhance Well-being for Special Needs Children

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You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to recognize that music has an effect on your mood. Music has been linked to improving memory, altering the response to stress, inspiring creativity, strengthening social bonding, and enhancing mood, focus and motivation. Research even shows that music can boost immunity and support physical health. For many children with special needs, music has been shown to improve concentration, help manage impulse control, enhance language development, and ease tension.

How Music, Stress and Well-being are Related

First, let’s understand the relationship between stress, health and music. Stress can play a role in the behavior of all children (and grown-ups!), not just those with special needs such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders. Stress raises the level of the hormone cortisol in the bloodstream; too much cortisol not only deteriorates the immune response (which makes a person more prone to illness), it interferes with our ability to cope. Listening to your favorite music has the power to calm the mind and body enough to lower levels of cortisol while also raising the hormones associated with relaxation, which is conducive to a healthy mind and body.

What Kind of Music is Best?

Because musical preference is such a personal matter, it’s difficult to study all the different styles and the effect on individuals. Based on research that has been done with special needs children, listening to certain classical musical pieces has been shown to reduce tension, improve focus, and enhance social interactions. So, you might try these songs:

  • Beethoven Concerto for Piano No. 5 
  • Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor
  • Bach Brandenburg Concertos
  • Handel Water Music
  • Brahm Concerto for Violin, D Major
  • Vivaldi The Four Seasons
  • Tchaikovsky Concerto for Piano No. 1
  • Pachelbel Canon in D

Free Download: Music for Healthy ADHD Brains

Also visit Additude Magazine for additional song suggestions.

If classical isn’t the vibe for your child, you can do your own research: Experiment with the types of music your child is listening to and record the results. Measure heart rate and blood pressure before, during and after listening. If that’s not possible, observe your child’s breathing: Is it relaxed and even, or short and choppy? Record the results in a journal, noting how your child's behavior changes with different types of music. From here, you can create a great playlist that specifically meets your child’s needs.

Will Your Child Benefit from Seeing a Professional Music Therapist?

A certified music therapist provides a more in-depth approach and analysis of how music can benefit your child. He or she designs a customized program that uses clinical and evidence-based therapeutic interventions that use music to improve health, social functioning, communication and cognitive skills. To achieve these goals, the therapist works with a child beyond just listening to music. Sessions with a music therapist can include lyric development, active listening, improvisation, music and imagery, song writing, and performance according to individual needs and abilities. Music therapists must provide ongoing evaluation, planning, and follow-up on these interventions.

A professional music therapist must meet certain education and training qualifications as well as abide by a code of ethics, including but not limited to:

  • Bachelor’s Degree or higher in music therapy from one of the American Music Therapy Association approved college or university programs;
  • Beyond the academic coursework, 1200 hours of clinical training (including an internship) are required;
  • Professional Competencies identify the minimum entry level skills for a therapist who has completed the minimum education requirements in music therapy. This includes clinical practice and research.

A music therapist who holds a professional designation – ACMT, CMT, or RMT – will be listed on the National Music Therapy Registry. You can learn more by calling (301) 562-9330. To find a music therapist in your state and local area, use the AMTA Directory Search. Also, ask your child’s pediatrician or therapy team for a referral. Music therapists can work in private practice, clinics, hospitals, treatment centers, and schools. 


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“What Music Works Best for Autism?”

 “Music Therapy in ADHD: The 8 Best Songs.” Attitude Magazine online:  

“Music for Your ADHAD Ears”  Psychology Today online: 

Goldstein, B. “The Secret Language of the Heart: How to Use Music, Sound, and Vibration as Tools for Healing and Personal Transformation.” (2016) Hierophant Publishing. “Science Watch: Music as Medicine.” Posted by Amy Novotney; (Nov 2013 44:10). Accessed on 4 May 2017:

American Music Therapy Association. “Selected Bibliography on Music Therapy and Mental Health.”  Accessed 4 May 2017:

Ryback, R., “Music’s Power Explained.” .” (posted Mar 2016). Psychology Today Online. Accessed 4 May 2017:

Bergland, C., “Cortisol: Why “The Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1.” (posted Jan 2013). Psychology Today Online. Accessed 4 May 2017:

Sloboda, J.A. and O’Neill, S.A. “Emotions in everyday listening to music.” In Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (Juslin, P.N. and Sloboda, J.A., eds) (2001)  pp. 415–429, Oxford University Press. Accessed 4 May 2017:

Rickard, N.S. “Intense emotional responses to music: a test of the physiological arousal hypothesis.” Psychol. Music (2004) 32, 371–388.

Brown,S.etal, “Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems.” NeuroReport (2004)15, 2033–2037.

Davis, W.B. and Thaut, M.H. “The influence of preferred relaxing music on measures of state anxiety, relaxation, and physiological responses.” J. Music Ther (1989). 26, 168–187.

Khalfa, S. et al., “Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress.” Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. (2003) 999, 374–376. 

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