A quick reminder: the opinions expressed and the order of the words in Windward Notes are mine and nobody else’s. They do not reflect the views of and are not influenced or reviewed  by the Windward Choral Society, its members, its Board of Directors or anybody else on the planet. I got a little feisty (okay…mad) this week and I want to be sure we all understand that it fell out of my tiny brain without any help.


I stumbled on an article entitled, “Study casts doubt on music therapy for kids with autism” that made me go, “Uhhhh…what?” With all of the success stories surrounding music therapy, what exactly were they talking about? It turns out that the focus of the study and its title were not exactly well aligned and it should have read “Study casts doubt on music therapy for improving the symptom severity for kids with autism by watching them for only five months“. That’s a different story altogether AND the article kinda disagrees with itself a lot. These are quotes from it, some condensed (by me) to get to the point, comments are mine.

  • Ethan Jones thinks he was playing the piano. “I was with someone, and we were in a room, and we were just playing a piano,” Jones, 23, a resident of New York, said of his first music therapy session…Mostly, he remembers vibrations, sounds. He was 3 years old. Jones, who has autism, “sang before he could speak,” said Maria Hodermarska, a licensed creative arts therapist…”You see this actually in people who have had a traumatic brain event, like a stroke, where the capacity for singing remains but the speech center is impacted because they’re two different centers of the brain….That part of his brain was developed and functional,” she said. Even though her son could sing a few lines from a Beatles song, he couldn’t make even the most simple of requests like ‘I would like a sandwich’. “It was the singing that led him into speech.” Hodermarska said.

Mrs. Hodermarska also remarked that quantitative, qualitative  data of how music therapy improves social skills may be “challenging to measure”. Translation: it’s hard for scientists to put a number on it, but it works.

  • Donna Murray, vice president of clinical programs at Autism Speaks, said that in the US classes she’s observed, musical therapy is typically “child-led music,” in which a child and therapist create music together. “So let’s say the child picks up a drumstick and starts beating on the drum, and the therapist might join in. It’s a creative joint experience, if you will.”

So the autistic child has now found a communication medium to relate to the therapist, one that has its roots in the most basic of musical expression: rhythm. Consider for a moment the phrase “child-led” that may have slipped by. That’s a BIG deal.

  • In the study, Norwegian researchers found that music therapy plus standard care for children with autism spectrum disorder did not improve their symptom severity more than standard care alone.

But that’s not the point, is it? Is music therapy going to make autism go away? Of course not. Does it give relief to those afflicted and their families, if only for a little while? Of course it does. Let me swap the autism out of the quote above to give a little clarity to my point: “In the study, Norwegian researchers found that painkillers plus standard care for adults with chronic back pain did not improve their symptom severity more than standard care alone.” Nope, but the temporary relief adds to the quality of life. The back is still wrecked and the symptoms haven’t changed a lick but the medication’s masking affect on the afflicted reduces them, if only for a little while. Can you put a number on it? Not really. Do you know it helps?


I’m not the only one who cried foul, the music therapy program director at NYU Steinhart, Kenneth Aigen, had some valid criticisms to how the study was done.

  • …the study was weak, Aigen said, “if you think of music therapy in a more humanistic sense” as providing people the opportunity to enrich their lives…the researchers lumped together a whole host of practitioners from many different cultures, countries and methods and assuming that what they’re doing is similar enough to each other in order to warrant being evaluated as the same thing. Music doesn’t have a generic structure like medication does, and it doesn’t have a universal set of procedures like a surgical procedure does.” He also criticized the premise that the focus of therapy should be to make people less autistic…”that’s not how autistic people look at their autism anymore. That’s not the kind of help they want for themselves.”

Amen, brother. There were several other rebuttals to the project’s results but you get the idea. The fact that the study was only FIVE MONTHS LONG was also buried a bit deep in the research results, a sad sampling for a diseases that is a lifetime of work and care and therapy.

Here’s the part that hurt (angered) me when I read it, the head researcher started with this:

  • “People with autism, for as long as the term ‘autism’ has existed, many of them have been described as having a special interest in music…For those who have that interest, they should have the right to pursue that interest, whether or not it’s called music therapy or just music, whether or not it is in a one-to-one setting or some other kind of setting, whatever fits.”

Good, so there’s a place for it and it has value, even if you can’t put some sort of quantified data on top of it.  He continued in this positive direction:

  • Though more research is needed, he believes music therapy might work best for children with autism who don’t have a lot of verbal abilities and who may have multiple problems ‘because it uses music rather than words.’ “It might be a good option for only those kids on the lower-functioning of the spectrum.”.

Also good, these are the ones who are not only suffering the most but are also the most difficult for their families and therapists. Music can become at least a small window of opportunity for connection, much like our rhythmic friend mentioned earlier. Sadly, the whole thing ended with this:

  • The study does not support the use of improvisational music therapy for symptom reduction in children with autism spectrum disorder, the researchers concluded.

How DARE you? Because you can’t measure it in your study you think it should go away? From a study of a lifetime of challenges, you made a conclusion in 15o days?! I deal with data for a living and that would be referred to as a severely limited set.  If it can help even ONE child to create a relationship with another human being that would not have happened without the power and magic that lives in music, I don’t care what your numbers say. To the parents of that child, this is the most valuable thing in the world.

And I’m sorry, but your research is not.