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Music is a universal language that transcends boundaries and brings people together. For students with learning disabilities, it isn’t just an art form; it’s an avenue for expression, therapy, and learning. Research shows that music can play a crucial role in special education, aiding students in acquiring specific skills and improving their overall well-being.


With the right approach, teaching music to students with learning disabilities can unlock doors of expression, creativity, and understanding that other teaching methods might miss. 


This article delves deep into teaching music to students with special needs, exploring techniques, methods, challenges, and the benefits of music intervention.


Strategies & Proactive Steps


Teaching music to students with learning disabilities requires a fine blend of patience, innovation, and adaptability. Here are some actionable steps and advice for educators and caregivers.


Personalised Learning Plans: Recognise that every student is unique. Create tailored learning plans that cater to individual needs. This could mean selecting specific instruments that align with a student’s motor skills or choosing songs that resonate with their experiences. Observe which sensory method resonates most with a student and tweak your lessons accordingly.


Begin by assessing the student’s musical knowledge, preferences, and strengths. Create a learning plan tailored to their needs. Always be prepared to adjust your teaching approach. If a student seems more responsive to rhythm than melody, pivot your lesson to focus on percussion instruments or rhythm-based activities.


Incorporate Multiple Learning Modalities: Some students might be visual learners, while others might be auditory or kinesthetic learners. Use various teaching methods – from visual aids and hands-on instrument practice to rhythmic body movements.


Visual Aid: Incorporate visual tools like flashcards, diagrams, or even apps that provide visual feedback. For teaching pitch, use a chart that shows the rise and fall of notes, helping students visually connect the concept of high and low pitches.


Establish Trust: Before teaching occurs, students must trust their educators. Building this bond is paramount, allowing students to feel safe and understood.

Invest time in getting to know your students. Understand their likes, dislikes, strengths, and challenges.


If a student seems particularly anxious one day, spend a few minutes chatting and discussing their favourite song or artist instead of diving straight into lessons. This can ease them into the learning space.



Set Achievable Goal: Remember, it’s not a race. Every student progresses at their own pace. Break down the music lessons into bite-sized, achievable tasks, celebrating every little success.


Continually reassess goals. As students progress, challenges that once seemed impossible become accessible, and goals need to evolve in tandem.


Interactive Learning: Engage students in interactive activities. This could be in group sessions where they create music together or through games that teach musical concepts. Interactive learning is often more effective than traditional methods, especially for students with attention challenges.


There are numerous apps and software designed to teach music. Some of these are specially tailored for students with special needs. Leveraging these tools can provide a more engaging and interactive learning experience.


Introduce Repitition: Break lessons into smaller segments and revisit them each session. Repetition doesn’t have to be monotonous. Turn it into a game or challenge to keep students engaged. If you’re teaching a specific song, revisit its chorus multiple times within a lesson, and then start each new lesson with that same chorus.


Small Wins & Regular Feedback: Recognising and celebrating small milestones is essential. Whether mastering a new note, playing a song without errors, or simply showing improvement in rhythm, every minor achievement is a step forward. Continuous constructive feedback encourages students to push their boundaries.


Patience and Persistence: Teaching to students with learning disabilities requires patience. There might be days of slow progress, but the key is to remain persistent, keeping the ultimate goal in mind: opening the magical world of music to every learner, irrespective of their challenges.


By keeping these strategies in mind and always being open to adaptation and innovation, music education can be a transformative journey for students with learning disabilities, shining a light on their inherent potential and the melodies within.


Different Methods



The world of music education offers a plethora of methodologies, each designed with specific goals and target audiences in mind. When teaching students with learning disabilities, these methods become significantly vital. They’re tailored and flexible and employ unique strategies to make music more accessible and beneficial to these students.


  • Gordon’s Music Learning Theory: Developed by Edwin E. Gordon, this theory emphasises auditory learning. It’s rooted in the belief that music and language are closely intertwined. Encouraging students to recognise patterns in music, much like spoken language, aids in nurturing their musical aptitude. This method can be especially effective for students with learning disabilities as it taps into their innate musical potential rather than cognitive challenges. This method emphasises the importance of audiation, or the ability to hear and comprehend music even when it’s not playing. Through pattern recognition and sequential music learning, students develop a deeper understanding.


    • Start with aural/oral experiences before transitioning to symbolic or written ones. Use familiar songs to teach new concepts.
    • Keep the focus on “hearing” the music internally. This internal audiation process is crucial.
    • Play a familiar song and then stop it midway. Ask the student to continue the song in their mind. After some time, play the song again and see how closely their internal continuation matched it.


  • Carabo-Cone Method: This method is all about body movement. Created by Rhoda Bernard, the Carabo-Cone method involves using body movement to teach music. Correlating physical movement to musical rhythms provides students, especially children, with a multi-sensory learning experience. For students with disabilities, this can be transformative, allowing them to express themselves through movement and better understand musical concepts. Focusing on body movement and emotions, this method helps students relate to music on a personal level. They’re encouraged to express how music makes them feel through dance or movement.


    • Use activities that allow students to express their feelings about music through movement.
    • It’s not about the precision of the movement but the emotion conveyed. Make sure the student feels safe and not judged.
    • Play a piece of music that shifts in tempo or mood. Allow students to move or dance freely as they interpret these shifts, focusing on their emotional connection to the music.


  • Kodaly Approach: Hailing from Hungary, the Kodaly approach is a sequential method of teaching music. It begins with more straightforward songs and concepts, progressively moving to more complex musical ideas. The gradual learning curve can be particularly effective for students with specific learning disabilities, providing them with a sense of accomplishment at every stage. Using symbols and a syllable system makes it easier for students with learning disabilities to grasp complex musical concepts. The inclusion of hand signs, singing, and games makes learning fun and engaging.


    • Use hand signs, syllables, and folk songs to teach musical concepts. Begin lessons with songs the student is already familiar with.
    • This method is cumulative, meaning each step builds on the last. Ensure mastery at each level before moving on.
    • Introduce the concept of pitch using the familiar “Do-Re-Mi” song, associating each syllable with a hand sign and its place in the musical scale.


  • Dalcroze Eurhythmics: Emile Jacques-Dalcroze designed this method primarily focusing on movement. Dalcroze Eurhythmics integrates movement, ear training, and improvisation. By making students experience music, it promotes an experiential way of learning. This is especially beneficial for students who might struggle with traditional learning methods, offering them an alternative and more engaging way to understand music. It stresses the relationship between motion and music. Students can internalise musical concepts better by associating movements with rhythms and beats.
    • Organise activities where movements are coordinated with musical cues.
    • This method emphasises the idea that movement can enhance musical understanding. The focus should be on fluidity and responsiveness to musical changes.
    • Play a song with varying tempos. Encourage students to walk, jog, or run in response to the song’s pace.




While the journey of teaching music lessons to children with learning disabilities can be rewarding, it is not without challenges. Some students struggle with concentration, while others struggle to understand musical concepts. Being aware of these challenges is the first step to addressing them effectively.


  • Motor Skills: Some students might face challenges with motor skills, making it hard for them to play specific instruments. Fine motor skills, crucial for instruments like the piano or guitar, might be a hurdle.


Adapt instruments or teaching methods to cater to student’s physical needs. This might mean using lighter instruments or those that require less skill. Seek out specialised instruments designed for those with physical challenges.


  • Sensory Overload: For some students,, a music class can be overwhelming. The array of sounds from multiple instruments and voices can lead to sensory overload.


Limit the number of stimuli in the learning environment. This could mean minimising background noise or using only one instrument at a time. Be observant. Provide a quiet break or change the activity if a student appears overwhelmed.


  • Communication Barriers: Communicating complex musical concepts can be daunting. Understanding and articulating their thoughts can pose an added layer of difficulty for students with language or speech challenges.



Use alternative communication methods, such as visual aids or sign language, to enhance understanding. Pay close attention to non-verbal cues, often giving insights into a student’s feelings or understanding. If explaining a musical concept verbally is ineffective, use colour-coded notes or visual rhythm tools to aid comprehension.


  • Individualised Attention: Every student is unique. One-size-fits-all approaches often fail.
  • Keep class sizes small or offer one-on-one sessions. This allows for tailored lessons that cater to each student’s unique learning style.
  • If a student struggles with rhythm, spend additional time with percussive instruments like drums before transitioning to melodic ones.
  • Resource Limitations: Specialised equipment or tools might be unavailable or too costly.
  • Seek grants, community donations, or partnerships with local businesses. A little financial aid can go a long way in procuring essential resources.
  • Concentration Issues: Many students with learning disabilities have difficulty maintaining sustained attention. This might manifest as restlessness, easy distractibility, or difficulty following instructions in a music class.


Benefits of Music Intervention


Therapeutic Value: Music therapy has been shown to alleviate anxiety and improve mood among students with learning disabilities. Integrate music therapy sessions with regular lessons. The combination can enhance emotional and cognitive development.


Improved Motor Skills: Playing instruments can enhance fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Engage in activities that involve both hands or rhythmic coordination between hands and feet. Remember that motor skill improvement is gradual. Celebrate progress, not perfection. Hand drums can be excellent for students with limited finger dexterity, as they involve broader hand movements.


Enhanced Cognitive Abilities: Music stimulates various brain parts, helping students improve memory, concentration, and verbal competence. Use repetitive melodies and rhythms to enhance memory and information retention. Simple, catchy tunes can act as mnemonic devices, helping students remember concepts beyond just music.


Social Skills Development: Group music lessons can foster social interaction and help students with special needs develop communication skills. Peer interaction can help students feel a sense of belonging and improve their teamwork skills—Organise group sessions where students can collaborate, communicate, and create music.


Social Integration: Music has an innate ability to connect people, transcending words or actions.

Organise group sessions or ensemble practices. This not only teaches teamwork but also creates a sense of belonging.


Emotional Development: Music allows students with special needs a channel to express their emotions, helping in emotional regulation and self-expression. Encourage students to use music to express their feelings, whether by playing instruments or singing.


Boosted Self-Esteem: Every musical milestone, big or small, is a testament to a student’s dedication and hard work and helps them foster confidence and self-esteem.




Teaching music to students with learning disabilities is a journey filled with challenges but replete with rewards. As a teacher, parent, or caregiver, your role in facilitating this journey is invaluable. While specific techniques and strategies can aid the process, the patience, understanding, and love you bring make a real difference. Every note played and every song sung is a testament to the resilience and potential of these unique individuals. Celebrate their achievements, no matter how small, and watch them bloom in the world of music.


About the Author: Ewa Bukowska


Ewa is an education practitioner focusing on technology adoption to support the daily lives and education of neurodiverse children and young people.


Ewa has worked in different settings on the verge of education and technology and is passionate about creating accessible and inclusive learning environments.


Ewa is also a SEND Programme Manager at Ignite Hubs, a UK-based charity, where she develops programming resources and offerings for children and young people with Additional Learning Needs.


Ewa’s passion for education was sparked by her older sister in their teenage years who encouraged her to tutor children in their neighbourhood. She is also a younger sister to a brother with Down Syndrome.