Can Music Therapy Improve Social Skills?
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
The act of making music is inherently communicative.
When I was a kid, I think my mom probably connected to the worries of Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky in the Full House episode where the twins only play with each other at daycare.
My twin sister and I spent a lot of time in our basement, playing angsty pop-rock.
But those musical skills I built at a young age have allowed me to show up to jams or open mics and connect with folks musically without ever having a conversation.
Learning to make music opens up a whole new world of connecting with others
...which can be a godsend when small talk feels like the hardest thing in the world.
“Social Skills” is one of those terms that can feel unnecessarily vague.
We know they’re important- getting along with others is necessary to most aspects of modern society- but what’s the difference between innate character traits and learned ways of interacting with others?
Sometimes people just don’t “click,” but, hey, being able to get along with people we don’t especially like is a pretty important skill for work, friendships, and even family (at least mine!).
As we move from early childhood to adulthood, our social skills evolve.
“Soft Skills” are often cited in the hiring process- that ability to make a customer feel at ease, or to explain something well in layman’s terms.
Moving from the basics of kindergarten to more nuanced interactions is important, and it comes more naturally for some of us than for others.
Music can be a great way to reinforce social skills in a safe, structured, rewarding environment.
Why Music Therapy?
Live music is an inherently social activity- there’s a reason we’ll go to a show on a night out, pull out the guitar at a party for a group sing-along, or belt out carols around the holidays.
Music brings people together from all walks of life, and it’s a great tool to “level the playing field” when it comes to social interaction.
Whereas academic courses may be separated by ability, or verbal conversation may be limited by language fluency, music is accessible at multiple levels, from virtuosic guitar soloing to playing an egg shaker out of time.
As a music therapist, I can use live music making to approach many different social skills at once.
For example, take a group xylophone improvisation experience:
I may use a “piggyback” song that calls each group member by name as they solo. During the song, group members practice:
Singing to their friends and supporting them as they solo
Listening and waiting for their own turn to play
Participating, and trying to play even if they’ve never played a xylophone before
Making eye contact or communicating with me non-verbally when I hand them the mallet
Communicating a musical Idea to their peers
Sharing, and handing off their mallet to a peer when they finish their solo
The structure of the song (verse, chorus, etc.) gives a set limit to how long each group member has to wait, and helps to manage expectations.
During a drum circle we may practice:
Actively listening and repeating back phrases
Using call and response
Communicating non-verbally via gestures and eye contact.
During a songwriting experience we can implement higher level skills like:
Contributing verbal ideas
Collaborating without putting down others (or their ideas)
Working together towards a common, concrete goal (a finished song) is inherently rewarding, and also provides a common point of focus to bring cohesion to our group.
Through a combination of qualitative and quantitative measurements, music therapists can demonstrate improvement through group music therapy.
Things like counting the number of turns taken without interruption, keeping track of words spoken during a songwriting activity, or noting which experiences or interventions a participant attempts may be included in documentation.
Comments made during group may be recorded as well, to reinforce observed behavior.
While music may provide the glue to conduct a wide-ranging group, each client has their own unique goals and objectives which are addressed during each session.
If social skills are something you or your loved one need support with, music therapy can be a great way to facilitate growth.
For one, groups are generally more affordable than individual therapy.
Secondly, not only will your child emerge from group with new social skills, they'll also have increased musicianship.
Sometimes music therapy can be the gateway to pursuing the study of an instrument, or composing original music,
...which can lead to a wider social circle, a stronger support network, and an increased quality of life.
Making music together is one of the easiest, most profound ways to remove barriers to socialization and connect in a genuine, human way.
I’ve seen shy kids completely come out of their shell during groups, kids who don’t communicate verbally singing along with friends, and kids who carry the weight of the world lighten up and smile during a goofy drum circle.
There’s a reason we describe folks getting along as “living in harmony.”
- Catherine Backus, MT-BC
Now I have a few questions for you...
Do you agree that music therapy is awesome? Of course!
Does your child struggle to make friends?
Do they have a hard time interacting in social circles?
Do they enjoy music?!
...then they may be a good fit for our social skills groups!
We have social skills groups for ages 3 through adults throughout the year.
I'd love to see you at our next social skills music therapy group!
Check it out below: