Music – Helping People with Learning Disabilities

So much of our lives revolve around school and learning. Think about it, from the time you are born, you are on the path to learning something. Babies will learn how to crawl. Toddlers will learn how to speak. Around 5 years old is when most children start kindergarten and for the next 13 years of their lives, or until they graduate from high school, they will spend most of their time in a classroom. Some even choose to continue on to university for another 4 or more years. One thing is for sure: we all experience learning in one way or another. But, not everyone has an easy time learning. In the United States, as many as 1 out of every 5 people have a learning disability (The University of Texas at Austin, Sarah & Earnest Butler School of Music, n.d.). These learning disabilities make it much harder for those affected by them to succeed in school and other walks of life, but as Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D said, “Learning disabilities (LD) are not a prescription for failure. With the right kinds of instruction, guidance and support, there are no limits to what individuals with LD can achieve. (Cortiella & Horowits, 2014)” There are many tools used to help students who suffer from learning disabilities, but possibly on of the most effective is music. Music can help children with learning disabilities improve their social and emotional skills and learn better in the classroom.

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Learning disabilities inhibit a person’s skill for receiving, storing, processing, retrieving or communicating information and they stem from neurological differences in brain structure and function. They take many different forms and some of the most common types are dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. Other related deficits and disorders include auditory processing deficit, visual processing deficit, non-verbal learning disabilities, executive function deficits, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines a learning disability as: “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processed involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. (Cortiella & Horowits, 2014)”

ADHD is one of the most common learning deficits diagnosed in the United States. As of 2016, there were an estimated 6.1 million children, ages 2-17, diagnosed with ADHD. That is roughly 9.4% of children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). These are the same statistics that Amy C. McKeever of Rowan University was looking at when she investigated how classical music can help children with learning disabilities for her thesis. She looked at a sixth grade math class, ages 11-12, that was comprised of nineteen students. Of these nineteen students, six had ADHD. The students typical class routine entailed doing the warm up problems, reviewing previous homework, learning new material, and receiving new homework. They also completed pre-assessment, skill worksheets, and post-assessments. The study changed nothing about this class routine, except for the music being played. (McKeever, 2017)

Over a period of two weeks, McKeever observed them in the classroom while music was being played and while it wasn’t being played. She found that, “Out of the nineteen students in the classroom, four of the students scored the same amount with music playing than without music playing, one student scored lower when music was playing than when music wasn’t playing and the remaining fourteen students all increased their scores on their skill worksheet when music was playing. (McKeever, 2017)” When surveyed about their experience with the music, the majority of students said that they could concentrate better, felt more motivated, and felt calmer and more relaxed with the music playing.

At the age of 21, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), type of Motor Neuron Disease. This was in 1963. Imagine if Hawking had never been able to communicate effectively again? Where would our world be without the scientific advances he made? Unique and intelligent individuals, like this, are what the world stands to lose if we cannot communicate with post-verbal people. Post-verbal people have a communication style that uses non-verbal forms of communication, such as noises, facial expressions, body language, movements, or eye gaze, instead of verbal forms. None of these forms of communication are explicit and many people have difficulty understanding them and often get frustrated or impatient with it, as a result post-verbal people can often become isolated, misunderstood, and discriminated against, which can in turn hinder their learning and overall wellbeing.

Over a period of two years, the Plymouth Institute of Education and Plymouth Music Zone (PMZ) is a project conducted a project called The Beyond Words project. It explored how learning music helps people who communicate non-verbally, like those with autism, stroke, or dementia. The study followed 25 post-verbal participants lives, and included teachers, social workers, and health practitioners; even going so far as to interview families and carers (all people who are important in the participants lives and know them best). It focused mainly on the participants emotional, social, and communication learning. For instance, the primary research question addressed how we involve and make music with people that communicate non-verbally and what benefits were gained by post-verbal participants in terms of wellbeing and social inclusion. It goes on to conclude that post-verbal people need music in order to pursue their wellbeing. Music helps them attain a voice and can be used as part of communicating with body language. Emotionally music helps them to develop their creativity, to develop self-soothing and self-care skills, and to give them access ‘unspoken pleasure and pain’. Socially it helped them create relationships with others. The study even determined that music can also help enable speech.

This was demonstrated by a teenager with autism named Sean. When Sean is around people he is knows and is comfortable with he speaks with ease, but when he is outside of his comfort-zone he is mute. Because of his time spent working with PMZ, Sean now has the ability to use music as his communication, instead of words, in uncomfortable situations. His mother even said, “He was a very introverted child for whom the world was a really scary place and it’s not quite so scary now… PMZ have built his confidence. (Quinn, Blandon, & Batson, 2017)” Music helped Sean develop emotionally, too. His mother passed away during his time with PMZ and he was able to use music to help in his grieving and communication of his emotion naturally. During this trying time, his Music Leader documented him saying, “I’ve started making my own songs at home. When I’m feeling sad, I just get the guitar out and it really helps me to get my feelings out. (Quinn, Blandon, & Batson, 2017)”

While there are many different methods for helping children with learning disabilities, music is probably of the simplest, yet most effective, methods. Music is beneficial to children with learning disabilities by helping them to develop emotionally and socially as well as develop their classroom and life skills, like concentration and motivation. The development of musical tactics to aid in learning can prove highly useful to those with learning disabilities. Therefore, the inclusion of these tactics in the classroom and in day to day life of the 6.1 million children that suffer from a learning disability would be highly beneficial in helping them overcome their disabilities.

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Music - Helping People With Learning Disabilities. (2021, Jul 01). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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