Music Therapy for Healthy Children and Families

by Jamie Blumenthal, MA,MT-BC

What is Music Therapy?

Over the last 20 years, I have frequently been asked the question “what is music therapy?” People are familiar with music and therapy but somehow when you combine the two words “music therapy”, it seems to challenge, confuse, fascinate and motivate people to ask that question.

Have you ever felt more relaxed when listening to music? Have you ever listened to music that instantaneously brought up strong feelings or brought you back to a special time from the past? Have you ever felt a sense of inner strength or spirituality when listening to music? Have you ever sung a lullaby to help comfort a crying baby or sung the alphabet song to a young child who is just learning the alphabet?

If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, then you have experienced the power of music. Music can evoke emotions, memories, and spiritual or social connectedness, as well as provide a means of expressing feelings and a sense of safety, security and comfort to young children. Music especially provides a fun way for children to learn. It is the one medium that cuts through the boundaries of age, culture, disability and disease.

Traditionally music therapists have worked in institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, state hospitals, and schools for children with special needs. But as the public has become more interested in “alternative” health care, the benefits of music for relaxation and stress reduction have been recognized and promoted. As more research is demonstrating the benefits of music on brain development, music therapists are now bringing their work and expertise into the mainstream.

There are endless ways you can bring music into your child’s life (and your own life) to enhance well-being and quality of life. Let’s begin with pregnancy.

Music Therapy for Pregnancy

Music Therapists are specially trained to teach pregnant women how to use music for relaxation and as a reminder of visual imagery. Music can be a means of changing a woman’s perception of pain during labor and delivery, thus eliminating or reducing the amount of anesthesia that is used during the birth process. The music therapist can often accompany the pregnant woman through labor and delivery.

During pregnancy, music can also be used for the baby. Prior to birth, babies may respond to music while in the womb. From personal experience, my son always kicked the exact spot on my abdomen that my guitar was touching. He would kick to each strum that I played on the guitar. It seemed that he became more active when he heard and felt the music. My daughter had a different response. She became quieter, less active when she heard and felt the music. They both continued their same womb responses after birth. Thus my son needed quiet to go to sleep and my daughter needed quiet music.


It is no mistake that lullabies from around the world all have a similar tempo. The tempo of a lullaby matches the tempo of the human heartbeat. Lullabies can be used to comfort crying babies and help them feel secure when going to sleep. When we sing lullabies to our children, we are nurturing them and communicating our love. Incorporating lullabies into a bedtime ritual can help children make the difficult transition into sleep. Lullabies can also be used if a child wakes up at night, has a nightmare or is sleeping away from home. With a lullaby in the background, babies and children can feel even more emotionally secure and safe when being held close to your body while you gently dance around a room or rock slowly in a rocking chair.

Crying is Musical

As parents, we become “in tune” with the sound of our baby’s cry. We know when it is our baby crying and if the cry is communicating hunger, a wet diaper, feeling tired or feeling pain. A baby’s cry is the beginning of speech and language. As amazing as it may seem, the cry is quite musical and the beginning of singing and discovering our voice. Each cry has a specific musical pitch and is held for a specific length of time (like singing). Eventually the cries become vocal sounds, squeels and babbling. Parents have often found that by exactly imitating their baby’s vocal sounds the baby will begin to make more vocal sounds. Before you know it, you’re having a conversation with your baby in “nonsense” sounds. Even very young babies are aware that you are communicating with them. They love the attention. This is the beginning of learning how to talk and how to have a conversation. Eventually the sounds become familiar – da, ba, ma etc. These sounds can be incorporated into familiar songs. Instead of singing the words to a song, you can sing ba ba ba, or da da da or ma ma ma, or that old standby, la la la. You might be surprised to find your baby singing along because the “words” are familiar. Soon your baby will combine these syllables into words that will be used to communicate thoughts and feelings.

Drumming for Children

In my experience of working with children as young as 6 months, I have yet to come across a child who is not able to play an instrument to the beat of a song, even if it is for only 2-4 beats. The drumbeat is the human way of imitating the heartbeat. Remember that a mother’s heartbeat is what a baby has heard and felt for the first nine months while in the womb. We never lose our response to this comforting sound. Even Alzheimer’s patients will respond to the beat of a drum when nothing else will reach them.

Children love to move to the beat of a drum. You can use different rhythms to indicate how to move. Play fast and children can run. Play very slow steady beats for big steps, softly for tiptoeing, silence for stopping, or make up your own. Doing this type of activity with children helps to develop listening skills, sound discrimination, awareness of starting and stopping (this could become part of safety awareness), as well as develop gross motor skills. You can do the drumming and have your child do the movement or better yet reverse it. Children don’t have a lot of opportunities to be in control. Let your child have the drum and you can do the movement. They quickly become aware of their “power” in a very positive way. They also learn about rhythm by doing this. This is a great activity for rainy days.

Music for Relaxation

Calm, quiet music can be used to reduce stress and enhance relaxation. The relaxed state induced by music is reflected in changes in brain-wave patterns. Simply having relaxing music in the background can change the way you feel. You can play relaxation music in the morning to reduce the stress of the morning routine. I sometimes like to play it around dinnertime when I’m tired, hungry and stressed. I find it helps to calm the children as well as me. Relaxation music can be used to reduce anxiety prior to surgery or in a medical situation where you feel anxious. Studies have shown that blood pressure is more stable when this kind of music is used before, during and after surgery. Relaxation music can be used when you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. There are relaxation and guided imagery tapes for children who feel stressed or are having difficulty sleeping

Music for Education

Music can be used to teach and improve speech and language. Music incorporates rhythm, pitch and words, which are all part of speech and language. Both sides of the brain are used with music, so information can be learned through music and eventually transferred into speech and language.

Popular songs can be used to teach children different skills. I taught my children how to spell their names by changing the words to the song “BINGO” For example: There is a boy who has black hair and Tyler is his name T Y L E R (repeat) etc. As you already know, most children learn the alphabet by singing the alphabet song.

Learning to play an instrument can provide a sense of self-esteem as well as help to develop important skills. Reading music helps develop reading skills, eye hand coordination and math skills. Playing an instrument develops fine motor coordination, and if the instrument is a wind instrument, oral motor skills can become more developed. A recent study of preschoolers showed that private piano lessons enhanced their spatial-temporal reasoning.

Listening to music helps to develop the brain. Research conducted by a group of neuroscientists found that listening to Mozart enhances spatial-temporal reasoning in college students. A recent article in the New York Times revealed a proposal by the governor of Georgia to spend over $100,000 of state money to provide every newborn a CD of classical music, due to the positive effects on brain development and spatial and mathematical skills.

Music to Enhance Relationships

Singing or playing music together as a family or with friends can be a fun way to enjoy being together. There are many songs for young children that have hand motions or movements. You can do the motions hand over hand with your child. They love the physical touch, the play, the eye contact and most of all the love that comes from being with their parents. As a family, you can go to concerts or other performances together or make your own music at home.

Music to Express Emotions

As children grow older and listen to more music, they begin to have preferences for certain kinds of music. Music may become part of a person’s identity during adolescence. We all have favorite songs that we identify with. These songs may express an emotion that we feel or talk about an experience that we are coping with. Music is an expression of emotion and the words an expression of thought. Keep in touch with the music that your child listens to. Periodically join your child in listening to his or her favorite music. Ask why the song is important, what are the favorite lines of the songs. This is a way to communicate with your child and get a sense of things that you might not know about your child otherwise.

Music for Special Needs

As mentioned, music therapists are now providing services for the general public. Children with special needs utilize a large portion of our services. Music therapy uses music as a vehicle to achieve nonmusical goals. When a child has special needs, music may be one of the most powerful ways to reach her and to help her to function at her maximum potential.

Jamie Blumenthal provides music therapy services to schools, agencies and private individuals. She also provides in-services to parents, organizations and health care professionals. For questions about music therapy or for more information, Jamie can be contacted at Family Music Connection: North Bay Music Therapy Services, PO Box 869, Windsor, CA 95492 (707) 836-8358 or

F. H. Rauscher et al., “Music and spatial task performance,” Nature 365 (1993): 611

F. H. Rauscher et al., “Listening to Mozart enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: towards a neurophysiological basis,” Neuroscience Letters 185 (1995): 44-47.

F. H. Rauscher et al., “Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning.” Neurological Research 19 (1997): 2-8.

K. Sack, “Georgia’s governor seeks music start for babies,” New York Times January 15, 1998.