Communicating with Music

19 January 2016

Communicating with Music

19 January 2016

Our Parent Support Consultant Gill Gleeson takes a look at communicating with music.

“Because music is a way of communicating other than with speech, or in addition to it, it is obviously something to look at for (though not only for) children with speech and language difficulties.

A number of claims are made for the value of music to children including those with additional needs. This article concentrates on one aspect, that of its communicative qualities. These do not depend upon understanding a language, but they can be very individual because the perception and responses to music are shaped by preferences and a person’s history. The music that a person likes tells you something about them.

How music can communicate

Among the ways in which music communicates (whether or not there are any words such as words of songs) are:

  • sounds as signals;  a bell, Alpenhorn, vehicle coming along a road, hooter on the river, etc., giving a message or a warning of some sort.
  • sounds producing associations in the mind, for example someone who has heard a blackbird singing on a trip to the countryside is likely to remember the trip if they hear a similar song elsewhere.
  • music in which people share a similar message or want to express something in a united way, e.g. an anthem, hymn, football song or those sessions on coach trips.
  • in rhythms (heartbeat, walking, rhymes etc.)  Music interacts with the body’s and mind’s own rhythms and frequencies.
  • music that expresses, reflects and generates mood, for example the gentleness of a lullaby.

Methods of musical communication

Many parents naturally sing to children, especially as babies.  Perhaps not all parents realise how valuable that is.  For those who would like to do more and want some more ideas, there are plenty among the sources listed below.

Musical methods for entertainment, therapy or education seek to exploit the communicative aspects of making music, as well as just listening to it, and its potential for expression.  Almost everyone does something with music in everyday life, by choosing what to listen to, singing, teaching with rhymes and action songs, or playing with children.  It is not necessary to be a trained musician, although musicians can do more with it.

The way in which musical activities enable social inclusion and meet social needs has been studied (e.g. Welch 2014). Singing, for example, is an engaging way to bring a group together. Claims have been made, beyond this, about additional benefits of active music-making with musical instruments, for example Schlaug, 2014.  Education for children tends to focus on active rather than passive musical activity. Speech therapists also sometimes work with music as a tool, for example at Blethers, 2013 (referenced below) a speech therapist describes in detail how she does this.  Educationalists might work on finding musical preferences and moving within and beyond them.

Some methods in music therapy use improvisation to communicate one-to-one with children. There are different schools of music therapy but one is described in López-González 2012 (the techniques used are described at pp.13 onwards). Among the characteristics they work on are communicating, listening, memory, movement, awareness, and reflecting back / dialogue. They also sometimes work on adjusting and extending the range of specific movements.

Most of all, perhaps, music allows people to express themselves, and to experience and understand expression.

When music is a nuisance

It is also worth saying that music can be intrusive. It is ubiquitous as a background, at events, in shops, or behind the action in films or TV programmes. For those more sensitive to it or with attention or concentration issues, background music can divert attention.

As well as leading the hearer into moods and feelings (sometimes different ones for someone wanting to divert from their own), for the musician it might also lead into analysis, a drawing into the architecture and flow of the music, absorbing and enriching in the right context such as a concert or relaxing at home.

Music successful as background to e.g. study probably is something that a person likes when they are really hearing it, but that is easy to “tune out” when they want to concentrate on something else. On the other hand, it could be a very difficult thing for a child with attention problems if they wish, or are required, to concentrate on something else.

I hope some may feel inspired to add music, or more music, to enrich communication and perhaps even discover a talent in a child who is drawn by it”.

Gill Gleeson


Blethers Speech and Language Therapy Edinburgh and Lothian, 2013. Music and communication development.

Brand E. and Bar-Gil O 2008, Improving Interpersonal Communication through Music. In: S. Malbrán and G. Mota (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd International Society of Music, Bologna. (then: Min-Ad: Israel Studies in Musicology Online, musical methods used are described particularly on pp61-64).

Hansen M. 2012, Music as Communication. Video, (Tedx Talks, Teddington).

López-González M. and Limb CJ. 2012, Musical creativity and the brain. Cerebrum, Epub 2012 Feb 22,

Music One2One 2016, Communicate Through Music activity pack, (National Literacy Trust).

Ploger M. and Hill K. 2005, The Craft of Musical Communication, (Institute for Musical Perception).

Sacks, O. 2009, Musical Minds. Documentary (NOVA, USA,

Schlaug G. 2015, Musicians and music making as a model for the study of brain plasticity. Progress in Brain Research 217:37-55. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2014.11.020,

Welch GF et al. 2014, Singing and social inclusion. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014 Jul 29;5:803. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00803,