Striking A Chord: Music’s Impact On Cognitive Delays & Physical Disabilities


“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
– Vincent Van Gogh


As a young child, Anthony suffered with severe language, social, and emotional issues. Socialization was a particular challenging issue. It was difficult for him to socialize with his peers, to work independently at school, and he was argumentative with his teachers. But music changed all that. Today, Anthony attends a precollege jazz program at Five Towns College and ranks in the top 10 percent of his high school class. He continues to perform in many events throughout his community. In describing his passion for music, he says, “Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to be an accompanist for the musical 13. The experience at the Airport Playhouse made me realize I wanted to become a professional accompanist… Music is my passion. I love being a piano player and a piano accompanist.” Anthony Vetere is autistic but, as evidenced by his accomplishments, is not limited by that diagnosis.

This chapter will discuss children who have various disabilities and how music becomes one of the catalysts for their success.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) states that there are currently 2.4 million students (ages six through twenty-one) who have been diagnosed with some form of a learning disability and receive special education services in the public schools. This number represents 41 percent of all students that receive special education and translates into one out of every five people in the United States who have a learning disability.

Although these are discouraging statistics, the good news is that children who have difficulty learning in traditional ways are usually able to learn and understand when music and the arts are added to the learning process. For example, former elementary school science resource teacher Kathleen Carroll taught her students—both traditional learners and learning disabled—science concepts through songs and rhymes. Music was the catalyst for their understanding and remembering complicated science concepts such as matter, energy, classifying, and inference. Sherry Dupont, an educational researcher and teacher in south-central Pennsylvania, found that by integrating creative drama into her students’ literature reading material, her remedial fifth graders retained the material better and scored higher on the Metropolitan Reading Comprehension Test.

To illustrate how music is a consistent vehicle for learning, no matter what the challenge, the following small sampling of studies indicate different areas where music aids those with learning disabilities.

Music strengthens the auditory cortex. Most learning disabilities start as auditory processing problems. Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab found concrete evidence showing that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brainstem’s sensitivity to speech sounds. The results of this study reveal that irregularities in brainstem sound encoding in some learning disabled  children can be improved with auditory training that comes from learning a musical instrument.

Music helps LD students with reading and vocabulary. Researchers discovered that when music was included into the reading process, students with a reading disability improved significantly in word decoding, word knowledge, and reading comprehension.

Music training improves reading ability of children with dyslexia. Stanford University research found that musical training improves how the brain processes speech, which can lead to improved reading ability of children with dyslexia and other reading problems.

Music helps LD children with attention and concentration. Researchers discovered that when learning-disabled children learn how to play a musical instrument, the following functions improve: attention, concentration, impulse control, social functioning, self-esteem, self-expression, motivation, and memory.

For the past thirty years, I have had a particular interest in music’s impact on children with learning disabilities because of personal experience. In 1982 our third son, Brandon, was born. Born six weeks early, Brandon was too high in the birth canal, and as a result he was literally dragged out by forceps. He was an unhappy baby and cried all the time. He had constant ear infections that included a build-up of fluid in his ears. Tubes were put in his ears, but at the age of three, he was barely talking. What he did say was unrecognizable. After having him tested by a professional, we determined Brandon needed speech and language intervention.

When Brandon was six, his kindergarten teacher expressed concerned about his ability to learn. He was not able to do the classroom work and seemed frustrated and distant. We had him tested again by professionals and the results were grim. Brandon was diagnosed with auditory processing, visual motor, visual perception, sensory motor, and attention deficit disorder. The difference between his oral IQ and written IQ was thirty-eight points, indicating severe learning disabilities.

This team of experts told us that school would be very difficult for him. We were told that he may not graduate from high school, that college was out of the question, and that a trade school would be more appropriate. I decided to take their conclusions as one possibility and not get too discouraged by the opinions of experts.

I began researching learning disabilities: first asking questions and later aggressively networking. I learned that learning disabilities are layered problems—one issue is partially resolved when ten others surface—and is a slow, laborious process where progress is incremental. My research led me outside of the public schools to various programs, many of which I enrolled Brandon in. For example, the Lindamood-Bell and Tomatis Method for auditory processing, the Ayres Clinic for sensory integration, the Irlen Institute for scotopic sensitivity syndrome, and a behavioral/developmental optometrist for visual motor and visual perception issues. We also utilized the services of educational therapists and tutors.

Music was a big part of his learning. To support Brandon in school, I created different musical games, rhymes and songs to help him learn his schoolwork. For instance, I made-up musical jingles to teach him spelling. We clapped out rhythms while learning addition, subtraction and multiplication facts. I made-up songs, jingles, and rhyming couplets for material he was learning in social studies, science, and language arts. And, I played specific pieces of classical music in the background as he was studying his school lessons.


Between the ages of four and eight, Brandon took group music lessons which included singing, learning the instruments of the orchestra, and playing on a little key-board. While other children were learning simple tunes, Brandon was struggling to coordinate his fingers on the keyboard. When Brandon turned eight, he started taking private piano lessons. It was a painstaking process as he was unable to remember from day to day where middle C was on the piano—or any of the other notes, for that matter. I decided to color-code the keyboard and his music. For instance, putting an orange dot on middle C and pointing to the orange-colored note on the music page, and then pointing to the same note on the piano gradually helped him make the association.

Slowly the pieces of information began to take shape and concepts became easier for him to grasp and understand. His ability to process information became easier and his ability to concentrate and focus for longer periods of time increased each year. After a long hard road, Brandon was accepted to a four-year university and eventually graduated with straight A’s in film and philosophy. Getting to where he is was not an easy journey, and many times it felt like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with one leg.

The reason music helps children with a variety of learning issues such as developmental dyslexia, autism, language impairments, and ADD/ADHD, etc., is this: music strengthens the very areas of the brain where the child shows a weakness. Music builds and strengthens the auditory, visual/spatial, and motor cortices of the brain. These areas are tied to speech and language, reading, reading comprehension, math, problem-solving, brain organization, focusing, concentration, and attention issues. Hundreds of studies indicate that when learning-disabled children learn a musical  instrument the following functions improve: reading, vocabulary, speech and language impairments, phonological skills and spelling skills, attention, concentration, impulse control, social functioning, selfesteem, self-expression, motivation, and memory. Because of these reasons, getting your child consistently involved with music and music lessons is vital. We found this to be true in Brandon’s situation. Of the many programs Brandon participated in, the most important was having him take music lessons. The day to day discipline of playing a musical instrument was, in my opinion the greatest exercise for his brain. I became convinced that parts of his brain, rather than malfunctioning, were in need of the kind of exercise that one gets from studying a musical instrument.

Here are some examples of children with a variety of learning challenges and how music lessons were the catalyst for their learning and achievements: Alexandra Raber of Birmingham-Southern College wanted to see if various music activities would help autistic children become more engaged in their school lessons. She studied twenty-two children with autism and how they responded to five different music activities: songs with movement, songs without movement, action songs, songs with full body movement, and playing instruments. Raber measured their oral response, physical response, attention, and eye contact. Of the five activities, only one resulted in full participation by all twenty-two students, and that was instrument playing.

As a young child, Hamid Ala loved classical music and began voice training. He eventually began studying under Professor Hedley Nosworthy, author of Singing: The Truth Be Told. What makes his story so remarkable is that Ala was born with cerebral palsy—a neurological condition which affects muscle coordination and motor skills. When other music teachers refused to teach him, Professor Nosworthy gave him a chance and taught him to sing classical music. Ala has shown exceptional determination and focus and was recently accepted to the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University at Long Beach to continue his voice studies. For Ala, his journey in becoming a classically trained vocalist has been difficult, with many lessons learned along the way, including patience and helping others who have misconceptions about people with disabilities. He states, “People with disabilities want to be seen as human beings, as individuals, and not as having cerebral palsy or other disabilities. We want to be seen as equals, and music has done that for me.”

Music teacher, Miriam Choi of Melbourne, Australia works with children suffering from autism and selective mutism. Selective mutism (SM) is a disorder that occurs in childhood and is characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings, such as school, or in public places, as opposed to speaking at home with family members. It is associated with anxiety, and some researchers believe that it is an extreme form of social phobia.

One of her piano students is a young boy with SM who Choi describes as very talented, highly motivated, and an exceptional pianist and mathematician. Over the years, no matter the difficulty of music she gave him, he learned the pieces with detailed precision and emotional feeling. Unlike other children, his mother has never had to nag or coax him to practice the piano. He does it willingly and on his own. Little by little, he has gained the courage to perform in front of people. He is now fourteen years old, and when he performs at concerts, everyone marvels at both his exceptional music skills and his emotional and expressive musicality.

Today, Brandon is thirty-two years old, is married; works in the film industry and writes blogs on various topics of philosophy. Music is still a very important part of his life. He listens to classical music while traveling on the train to work each day and plays the piano weekly. He will always be somewhat of a round peg expected by society to fit into a square hole but he is a happy, successful adult who loves life and embraces the differences in people.

Music can change our lives, our environment, and our world—no matter our challenges. Poetically speaking, human beings are made of music. It has been postulated that the smallest parts of our cells are made up of strings. Strings vibrate. Vibrations produce tones. And tones produce music. Human beings are made of music! Is it any wonder that people everywhere and in every circumstance respond to music? •

Sharlene Habermeyer, MA is the author of Good Music Brighter Children. She has spent over thirty years researching the effects of music in the brain development of children. She holds a Masters degree in Education from Pepperdine University, Malibu, California and a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Art from Utah State University. A college instructor and consultant, she has appeared on television, radio, and has been a keynote speaker at various conferences and seminars across the United States and has written or been featured in various publications.

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