Music Therapy and Social Skills Development: From Isolation to Community

By Katie Corbett MT-BC, MAMT

It is a Tuesday morning at Singing Heart. In a few minutes my group of music therapy clients will be arriving. I tune my guitar, move my keyboard towards the circle of chairs, and bring out the hand drums and percussion instruments we will be exploring today.

The room remains still and silent for a few minutes between preparation and arrival, a space that will soon be filled with the unique, creative energy of each participant. For some this spark of energy requires encouragement to express itself, perhaps through gently guiding hands to the vibrating surface of a drum, or a voice to the first phrases of a song. I note the subtle rhythmic tapping of feet or rocking that accompanies my guitar, or straightening of posture as the individual moves from slumped to tall, noticing peers, the therapist, and maybe for the first time how their own body feels as they connect with others, guided and encouraged by the music.

Music Therapy Interventions for Social Development

Participating in music therapy and creating together fosters not only an awareness of one another, but an appreciation and a sense of cohesion amongst the group as each individual has a unique musical contribution. While engaging in instrument play, the therapist may suggest partner instrument activities, which require team work to produce sound. This may be done through one individual holding a drum at eye level while a peer sits tall to strike the drum, or two peers tapping individual finger cymbals together. Peers are also encouraged to share instruments, perhaps playing together on a xylophone, or exchanging instruments amongst one another in the group. Creating solo and duet experiences within the group music making experience also encourages peers to recognize and bring awareness to each individual one or two at a time. This allows a natural pause for recognition and positive exchanges amongst the group. Participants who are withdrawn with isolative tendencies tend to respond positively when they feel they can genuinely contribute to the group experience and be recognized by their peers.

Music Elicited Peer Support

On an emotional level the music therapy experience allows peers to genuinely support each other. When checking in during the welcoming song, a peer may express feeling sad or frustrated. The feeling is shared with the group and often processed together through an impromptu blues song, or the individual may play out their feeling on an instrument supported by the singing, or instrument playing of peers.  This deep sense of understanding and nurturing provided by peers, to peers during the music therapy experience gives individuals the skills and confidence to actively create and engage with others.

Other Music Therapy Strategies

Music therapists employ a variety of strategies to the music therapy experience to foster true social development. This may also include social skills songs, and songs that cue and teach socially appropriate behavior. Music therapists may use a song that teaches how to start a conversation with peers, with specifically cued phrases that the individual can easily recall and use outside of the session. The therapist may also use partner-dancing activities or movement to music, which subtly encourages eye contact, cooperation, and provides leadership opportunities.  Music Therapy may be an effective strategy for transforming individuals from a state of withdrawl to that of awareness; from isolation to community. 

Katie Corbett MT-BC, MAMT is the owner and founder of Singing Heart LLC located in Stillwater, Minnesota, providing individual and group music therapy, adapted instrument and vocal lessons, arts experiences, choir, yoga and wellness for children, teens and adults with developmental disabilities. For more information visit our website singing-heart.org or contact Katie at Katie@singing-heart.org or (651) 373-4336