Music Therapy and Adaptive Lessons

As a Board-Certified Music Therapist working with Metro Music Makers, I provide both Music Therapy and what are called adaptive lessons. In both settings, I typically work in the home with children and adolescents who have psychiatric, developmental, behavioral or neurological diagnoses. The goals of these two types of session, however, can be very different. 

What is Music Therapy?

Music Therapy is the implementation of music-based activities to address cognitive, emotional, behavioral, developmental, neurological and other psychiatric or even physical needs by a Board-Certified Music Therapist who has received the research-based education and training necessary to design and implement Music Therapy interventions. We address the same goals that might be addressed by Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Physical Therapists, traditional counseling therapists and other professionals, and often work alongside them as part of a larger treatment strategy. Music Therapists are trained to use a variety of techniques including, but not limited to, instrument improvisation, songwriting, lyric analysis, and movement or relaxation to music to address the needs of their clients and help them meet their treatment goals. Clients may learn music skills incidentally as part of Music Therapy treatment, but this is not the primary objective of the Music Therapist.

 What are adaptive lessons?

By contrast, the acquisition of music skills is the primary goal of adaptive lessons. Many children show an early interest in learning to play an instrument, and parents may wish to encourage this, but children with special needs, or who have psychiatric, behavioral or developmental diagnoses may struggle in traditional lessons where the teacher may not have the training to accommodate the child’s learning style or adapt to behavioral, social or cognitive issues. In adaptive lessons, education and training in working with these populations is applied to provide the best possible music learning experience for the child. While learning an instrument may benefit the child in other ways, the teacher is not addressing any treatment goals related to the client’s diagnosis. 

Choosing Music Therapy or Adaptive Lessons

A child with special needs or any developmental, psychiatric, neurological or behavioral diagnosis may benefit greatly from either Music Therapy or adaptive lessons. The following are some guidelines for identifying which type of session might be the best fit for your child.

Music Therapy May Be Indicated When:

  • The child is already receiving treatment with other types of therapists, but seems especially interested in, sensitive to or connected with music. A child who is naturally drawn to music may receive special benefit from a treatment strategy that includes Music Therapy. This may also be helpful with children who seem bored, disinterested or not engaged in more traditional therapies, as music can arouse their interest and feel more like play.
  • The child may be a candidate for adaptive lessons at a later stage, but does not currently have the verbal, social, behavioral or cognitive skills necessary for even adaptive lessons. A Music Therapist can address these goals in treatment, with one objective being to ready the child for adaptive lessons in the future.
  • The child is not interested in learning an instrument and/or the parents’ focus is primarily exploring avenues of treatment for their child. Again, Music Therapy is designed to meet treatment goals, not to teach music skills, regardless of a child’s interest in or aptitude for music.
  • The child or parent want learning music skills to be a part of the treatment, but also want to ensure that the Therapist is specifically working to address treatment goals as well. Learning music skills can be part of a Music Therapy session, but the Music Therapist is also deliberately working on therapeutic skill-building, symptom reduction, etc.

Adaptive Lessons May Be Best When:

  • The child wants to learn an instrument and has tried traditional lessons, but did not have a successful experience due to behavioral, verbal, cognitive or other difficulties that the teacher was unable to work with.
  • The child has already received Music Therapy treatment for some time (or other outside treatment), treatment goals have been met or are in the process of being met, and the parent(s) and therapist agree that the child is now ready for adaptive lessons.

Understanding what Music Therapy is and what it can do for a child and, alternatively, what adaptive lessons can offer, as well as using the guidelines above can help parents, teachers, therapists and clients make informed, confident choices in their treatment.

Contributed by Sara R Guinn, M.M. Ed, MT-BC,

Sara holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Agnes Scott College and a Master’s of Music Education with Music Therapy from the University of Georgia. The focus of her clinical training has been child and adolescent psychiatric populations and working with children who have special needs. She completed her clinical internship at River Oaks Hospital in New Orleans where she worked with psychiatric populations included children and adolescents, eating disorders, trauma, addiction/dual diagnosis and general adult psychiatric groups.

Sara is board-certified and specializes in working with children who have special needs, and with children and adolescents with a variety of psychiatric, behavior and neurological diagnoses. She joined the Metro Music Makers Music Therapy staff in 2012.


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