Music and disability, the case for music in Special Education

Having spent the last few years wandering the globe telling people about Skoog and promoting music as a core topic in education I have often been asked:

“Why is music important?” or  “Why does music seem to have such an impact for disabled kids?” or “Why do disabled children seem to get so much from music?”

Skoog on show
Music in Our Message

This is the first of two posts on the subject of music and disability. The second will look at how music can enable children with physical challenges to take flight.

But first the primary question, why is music important in special education?

Let’s start with children in general.  Music, or more specifically Human Communicative musicality (yes I know it is a mouthful but bear with me), is a natural human competence that underpins and supports our social, cognitive and physical development from before birth.  The genius of children is that in the majority of cases, left to their own devices, they do this on their own. Children are musical. And they use this ‘musicality’ to help them learn and grow.  If you are interested in the research base behind this I would start with the work of Professor Colwyn Trevarthen.  You can see a video of one of Colwyn’s more recent presentations here:

music should be fun
Play is fun

As parents, peers, musicians and educators we should do everything we can to support the natural music of childhood. Now, I am not talking about learning music theory or an instrument per se, but having a laugh, having fun! Singing the jelly wobble song, or Nibbers the super chicken or blob blip bloop bleep nah nah fffft….(Now there is no reason why one can’t have fun learning music theory etc… but you get my drift).

It’s about playing with your kids, spending time with them, cranking some tunes and doing a silly dance!

sharing time
share time with your children

Helping and supporting our kids being musical will make them more coordinated, not just physically but emotionally and cognitively as well. In the words of the Champ Kind ‘that is a scientific fact!’

But whether we help, allow, or sanction it at all, children will do it themselves! Children have a spontaneous naturally occurring musical culture (Bjorkvold, 1992). They sing and dance without being taught how, they just do.  These are not deep philosophical works, but songs about bogies, doodles, action man’s fuzz face and such. They are of the moment, lost in the moment, something we, as adults, often strive to get back to, but that is another topic…

Supported or not this spontaneous music of childhood acts as a scaffolding (see Vgotsky) that we lean on to help us make our way in the world and in particular interact with other human beings.

co-operative play
At play

But what if we are cut off from this? Impeded, blocked, disenfranchised or denied. For whatever reason.

Well,the impacts can be massive.  For many young people with a disability they are unable to engage in this kind of musical play in a traditional sense. If you are unable to control your body in such a way as to play ‘waddling penguins’ say, or control your voice or breathing to be able to sing, or  find social situations stressful and a barage on the senses, then you can be cut off from this rich vein of support.

By delivering music making in special education we are opening up this channel. The key is for children to make their own music. To make a glorious noise! For many children with a disability we can use technology to give them a voice in this musical playground.  It can be their ticket to ride!

KalimbaThe results speak for themselves.   There is no difference in what is happening for children with a disability versus those who do not have a disability, it is just in the case of special education the results you see can appear magnified or more pronounced if the background level of spontaneous musical activity is less.

music and disability - the case for music in special education
Jack playing Skoog in 2011

Where music is missing, if you put it back you will see the result.  By delivering music making activities in special education we are simply  supporting the natural development of our children and in my opinion it should be a mandatory part of all our daily lives.

And if you are not sure how, As Colywn says, “let them teach you”.