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Why Music Breaks Through Barriers to Communication

My name is Catherine, and I am a mumbler.

Maybe it’s a result of self-consciousness as a kid (after my teacher referred me to speech therapy for a lisp I had no idea I had, I never felt truly comfortable speaking in public again), or a little bit of laziness mixed with crystal clear thoughts that get jumbled up as they attempt to exit my mouth, (and a millennial aversion to phone conversations) but I have to repeat myself. A lot.

(Even we therapists have goals we need to work on!)


But when I sing, people get me.


But when I sing, people get me. When I'm at a gig, even if they can’t understand my introductions to songs, one of the first things people remark on after shows is my lyrics.

For me, music (and singing, specifically) lets me communicate in a way that creates complete understanding of concept, intent, and emotion.

I see the same effects with many of my clients.


Regardless of what different barriers to communication that we might face, music therapy is

often an effective tool to removing them.


Elements of Communication

Communication can be divided into two categories: expressive or receptive.

Expressive communication can involve speech, body language, facial expression, signs, or gestures.

Receptive communication refers to understanding and processing another person’s expressive communication. This includes hearing, language processing, and understanding visual cues/recognizing another person’s emotions.


Skills like impulse control also incorporate into communication- no one likes being interrupted.


Music is a great way to address multiple areas of communication simultaneously, through a medium that is engaging, rewarding, and interesting.

What Are Some Ways Music Therapists Can Address Communication?

Because music activates both hemispheres of the brain, and can incorporate both listening and sound production, it’s an excellent tool for improving communication.

Here are a few examples:

1. A girl on the autism spectrum doesn’t speak very much, and avoids eye contact and interacting with others. She loves making music, and practices taking turns during improvisation, matching the MT’s mood or playing style. Using music to express herself, she becomes more comfortable making eye contact and laughing and joking with MT.

Because playing instruments is rewarding to her, it’s an effective prompt for her to “use his words” when requesting to play a certain instrument. She sings full phrases and responds to vocal prompts to complete phrases.

All of these skills worked on in music therapy can generalize to the school and home settings.

2. An older woman has had a stroke that damaged the speech production areas of her brain. She understands others perfectly, and knows what she wants to communicate, but expressive aphasia prevents her from forming the right words.

However, she can still sing perfectly, and recalls all of her favorite country and pop songs.

When the words don’t come, the Music Therapist provides sung prompts to “kickstart” speech and communication. She trains other care staff to use music and singing to connect with this client and reduce her frustration and sense of isolation when she cannot talk with others.

3. A boy with Cerebral Palsy has oral motor deficits and difficulty both forming vowel and consonant sounds and producing audible speech.

He gets frustrated and bored when repeating spoken exercises, but loves to sing with MT, and uses songs to practice creating different sounds and performing correct tongue placement and mouth shape while remaining interested and motivated.

He also uses recorder and kazoo as non-speech ways to improve oral motor control and muscle tone. Singing and playing wind instruments help to improve his lung capacity, giving him more resources for audible sound production.

4. An individual who is non-verbal practices signing along to lyrics of a song, “When I want _______ I sign _______.”

They use picture icons to choose instruments and songs, and practice engaging in cycles of communication by trading phrases on the piano and xylophone.

We Already do Speech Therapy-

Why Should I Bother with Music Therapy?

Music therapy isn’t meant to replace speech therapy, but it can provide an additional way to work on similar goals while also addressing other developmental and functional domains.

Many MTs co-treat with SLPs, and there are several resources co-authored by experts from both fields.

In the school setting, a music therapist and a speech therapist may schedule joint-sessions from time-to-time, or collaborate to use the same songs in their sessions. They would both be present at a student’s IEP meeting, and collaborate on appropriate goals and objectives.

In the medical setting, an SLP and MT may both be part of a care team, and both may provide education to direct care staff on ways to implement exercises and interventions throughout a patient’s day.

Many clients do participate in both speech therapy and music therapy, but some have a clear preference or greater response to one over the other.


Repetition is key to learning speech and language, and music makes repetition less dull and more memorable.


It’s kind of like how writing the same sentence over and over was a punishment during school, but you can sing your favorite song a million times and never get tired of it.

One of the things I love about addressing communication through music therapy with my clients, is that it often opens up a whole realm of possibility.

Seeing someone fully communicate through music, come out of their shell and display the full range of human emotion is an incredibly powerful thing.


If we can open that door through music therapy, then the rest of the world opens up.



If you think music therapy could help someone in your life improve communication, an assessment can help determine whether music therapy is appropriate for discovering your child's communication potential.

Download this FREE "home checklist" to see if music therapy may be a good fit for your child.

After filling out your home checklist, SCHEDULE A CALL with Noel by clicking below:

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