Most people would agree that music can be calming, medidative, even healing. Music therapy takes that notion one step further by using music in a targeted way to help impove people's physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Not only has this method been met with anecdotal support, but brain imaging shows actually measurable degrees of influence on the subject’s mind in NMT, or neurological music therapy, one of the practice’s many facets.

Practicing music therapy with kids may seem like just fun and games, but in truth “music activates and uses important, core structures in our brains,” asserts Peggy Schaefer of Metric Music Therapy in Southern California. While nothing substitutes for clinical expertise, the principles of music therapy can be easily applied in the home. Here are some easy things you can do with your children to experience the many benefits of music therapy.

Music Therapy and the Cognitive Domain

The “Mozart Effect” made big news years ago. A 1993 study seemed to show temporary gains in spatial intelligence when subjects listened to music by the classical composer. While the theory has since been disproved, further research has shown that learning to make music truly does have an appreciable effect on the brain. Tap into the benefits of music therapy by using it to impact the cognitive domain of your child’s brain.

  • Music mnemonics: “Think about all the songs that you know all the words for,” says Arizona-based music therapist Erin Benaim. “Music is a great mnemonic device.” Use familiar tunes such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday to You” to teach new information and watch kids’ cognition grow by building on what they already know.
  • Crossing midline: For this activity, hold two drums (or drum substitutes, as nearly anything can become a drum) at about shoulder height for your child. Sing or play a song, having your child hit the right drum with his left hand and then alternate left drum with his right in rhythm with the music—offer cues if this becomes difficult. “Crossing midline is a very important developmental skill to increase inter-hemispheric communication as well as sensory perception,” says Schaefer. “This also addresses sequencing.”
  • Call to attention: For continual attention, try using music as a cue for starting and stopping an activity, perhaps even associating certain songs and certain sounds with each activity. Music cues are especially beneficial to toddlers, Benaim points out, and can aid parents in transitioning their children from task to task with a minimum of anxiety. Rhythmic cues are frequently employed in the classroom by early elementary teachers; what better place to begin instilling these patterns than at home?

Music Therapy and the Social Domain

Music naturally echoes our patterns of communication. “Music and language use similar mechanisms in the brain, making it an ideal way to teach language and communication skills,” affirms Benaim. These activities will help to address your child’s social development.

  • Taking turns: In this activity, one instrument is placed between two children. One child plays a rhythmic pattern on the instrument while the other listens. Verbal, visual or tactile cues can alert the partner that it’s his or her turn to copy the first person’s pattern. This process is particularly suited toward developing the “pacing and cadence” of normal conversation, says Schaefer.
  • Question/response: Music takes the place of yes/no responses in this game. One person questions and the other responds, using “yes” instruments and “no” instruments (think tambourine, maracas, etc., here) to answer questions.

  • Drum” circle: The drum circle works well for small groups of children. Each participant is given an instrument (alternatively, they can be assigned a body sound such as whistling or clapping) by the child who is selected as leader for that turn. The leader shows the children how to play their instruments (loud or soft, fast or slow), and the group decides on verbal or visual cues. The leader then gets a turn to lead the group in making music. “For a lot of children, being the leader is a new experience,” Schaffer says. The key to this activity is fostering support for each child’s turn as leader.

Music therapists agree that music in the home is important—regardless of the parent’s perceived musical ability. “So many parents tell me they can't sing, but kids do not care,” Benaim says. “Songs are so useful for teaching information and typical development.” Parents can also use music to set the mood at home. While your first impulse might be to put on a CD of lullabies when your child is bouncing off the walls, the trick is transitioning gently. Benaim recommends finding upbeat music to match the mood and then adjusting slowly into slower, mellower songs.

“Music therapy is also really accessible to children, as kids typically find music enjoyable and non-threatening,” she adds. Kids with social, behavioral and developmental issues see many benefits from it—but the principles behind music therapy make it a great fit for children at all stages and developmental levels.