Music Therapy in Special Education

By Kevin Alvarez (MT-BC), Seika Bishton (MT-BC), and Carolina Vieira (MT-BC)
Edited by Theresa Kwong, Communications Consultant


What Is Music Therapy? 

Music therapy is an evidence-based use of music to accomplish individualized and functional non-musical goals within a therapeutic relationship by a Board-Certified Music Therapist (MT-BC). Additionally, it is a profession that actively applies supportive science to create emotional and energizing experiences of music to achieve health and educational goals (AMTA, 2005). Music therapists use a variety of interventions and techniques to assess various developmental areas while also creating individualized treatment plans to meet the immediate needs of clients. In special education, music therapy serves to help facilitate the functional, educational outcomes in the IEP goal areas.  


Music therapy is highly effective for improving:

  • Communication
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Personal Responsibility
  • Play 
  • Gross/Fine Motor Skills
  • Academics/Cognition


Additionally, music therapy has been used in special education to promote:

  • Learning and skills acquisition
  • Develop social competence
  • Enhance emotion regulation
  • Reinforce academic and cognitive function
  • Build confidence and independence through self-expression and self-advocacy


MT-BCs are highly skilled professionals who have specific training in how music affects the brain, body, and emotions in any given setting. MT-BCs use this specialized training to develop individualized and appropriate treatment plans to meet the needs of students in special education. 


How Do I Know My Child Would Benefit?

A student with an IEP is most likely receiving numerous services to enhance their learning and improve their skill set. Music therapy may be beneficial as an additional service as music is processed by a different area of the brain than speech and language, thus it might be easier for a child to absorb and interpret information and skills presented with music (AMTA, 2021). 

Caregivers might ask themselves: “How do I know music therapy will benefit my child?” Everyone enjoys listening to music in some capacity, but an important determinant for music therapy services is any change of functioning when music is played. The following lists some examples of potential candidates for music therapy:

  • A child who has difficulty focusing attention on a task for a long period of time is more attentive to song-based stories, or activities that involve music. 
  • A child who demonstrates increased phrase length or initiation when singing.
  • Decrease of maladaptive or aggressive behavior while listening to music. 
  • Music is a primary motivator or behavioral incentive.  


While it is important that a “child just really loves music,”providing additional justifications that music would enhance their learning make for a strong case to receive a music therapy assessment. 


FAQ: “What will music therapy look like for my child?”

  • Music therapy will look different for each student. Music therapy may elicit quick, tangible results or it may require more time and patience to see its impact. A music therapist will design a treatment plan that emphasizes the strengths of the child while also integrating music-based educational strategies that meet the needs of the child. 


What We Do  

Music therapists create individualized treatment plans and use the inherent order of music in the least-restrictive environment that allows the student to have creative experiences and explore freely while also providing structure to support behavioral expectations. 

Music therapists use a variety of interventions and techniques to support the educational needs of the students. Such techniques include

  • Instrument play to address gross and fine motor needs.
  • Improvisational and preferred singing to encourage vocalization and support communication needs. 
  • Songwriting/composition to support and facilitate self-expression. 
  • Musical improvisation to support social skills and promote creativity. 
  • Guided movement/dance to music to increase range of motion, imitation skills, and self-regulation.  
  • Listening to music to decrease agitation and promote positive daily leisure skills.
  • Musical stories to promote comprehension.  


How Do We Get Services?

Caregivers are encouraged to inquire about music therapy services by requesting an assessment during annual review meetings. Caregivers are a child’s primary advocate and demonstrating that there has been improved learning and development through music would be a strong discussion point during these meetings. For example, a caregiver could say, “Recently, I have noticed that my child really responds well to music–singing along to favorite songs, following directions when we sing, frequently asking for music–have we thought about including music in their educational plan? I think they would really benefit.” This observation and request from the caregiver sparks a conversation about adding music therapy services to the educational plan. 

Once a music therapy assessment is approved, an MT-BC will conduct the following: 

  1. Informal classroom observation,
  2. Interview with teacher, caregiver, and student (if appropriate), and
  3. Formal music therapy assessment (Adamek & Darrow, 2005).


During the assessment, the MT-BC will evaluate the student’s skills in developmental areas such as:

  • Communication
  • Academic
  • Social
  • Motor
  • Emotional


Following the assessment, the MT-BC will provide findings and recommendations to the caregiver and educational team. Once approved, the MT-BC will provide services as designated by the school district to support the educational needs of the student. These services will look differently depending on your school district and assessment results.


Types of Services

  • Individual

During individual services, an MT-BC will develop an individualized treatment plan. These individual sessions support a child’s more immediate needs that cannot be reached during a group session. 

  • Group  

During group sessions, an MT-BC utilizes music in a social setting with peers to collectively work on goals that each student may benefit from. This is a less individualized service model and focuses more on big-picture goals.

  • Consultation

During consultation services, a music therapist will work closely with the classroom teacher and educational team to develop strategies and techniques that will benefit the student when music therapy services are not available or not needed as frequently. Unlike individual and group services, there is not a direct service with the student. 


Music therapy will look different for each student. Music therapy may elicit quick, tangible results or it may require more time and patience to see its impact. Either way, it has been shown that music therapy is a beneficial service for students in special education. Caregivers can act as a strong advocate for their child should they feel that music therapy would support the needs of their student. 

To find a local music therapist, visit: Find a Music Therapist.         

Here in San Diego, you can find a dedicated team of music therapists at MusicWorx Inc who have a vast knowledge of music-based educational instruction and treatment styles that best meet the needs of children in special education.          



American Music Therapy Association.

Adamek, M.S., & Darrow, A. (2005). Music in Special Education. The American Music Therapy Association, Inc. 

Cummings, E. (2022). The Role of Music Therapy in Special Education.

Certification Board for Music Therapists.


Additional Resources: 

Music Therapy in Special Education


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