Can someone with a communication disorder misinterpret a musical message?

music and communication disorders

We all need to communicate. For most of us, that includes talking, listening, and paying attention to body language to name a few. An individual with a communication disorder has difficulty in one or more of those areas. They may not be able to read body language or have difficulty in speaking or simply cannot hear due to a hearing loss. A study entitled “Do Communication Disorders Extend to Musical Messages? An Answer from Children with Hearing Loss or Autism Spectrum Disorders” was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Iowa and published in February of 2015. They wanted to “[compare] recognition of symbolic representation of emotions or movements in music” (p. 78) using two distinct groups of students with communication disorders. The first group included children with profound hearing loss using cochlear implants (CI) and the second group included autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Their responses were compared to typical developing children with no hearing loss (TD-NH). This post will share the results of this study and explain its significance for the field of music therapy.

The research team had the groups of children listen to recorded music and developed the Perception of Emotions and Movement in Music test as a way to score responses.  Researchers chose five emotions and four movements taken from previous studies and used music specifically composed for the study.  In order to validate their findings, the team did a pilot study on adults before the study conducted with the children.  Music uniquely designed for the study eliminated associations with popular classical or movie music.  

Results showed no significant difference between the ASD group and the TD-NH group, but the CI group had fewer correct answers when identifying emotions and movement.  For music therapists working with individuals with a communication disorder, these findings may determine the type of intervention and music chosen in a music therapy session.  Music cues can be effective in working with individuals with communication disorders through, or with the support of, a board certified music therapist who is aware that each disorder has specific characteristics that determine how one is receiving and processing the stimuli.  If emotion or movement is the goal,  the challenges faced by those with communication disorders must also be taken into great consideration when developing an effective intervention plan.

Whipple, C. M., Gfeffer, K., Driscoll, V., Oleson, J., and McGregor, K. (2015).  Do communication disorders extend to musical messages? An answer from children with hearing loss or autism spectrum disorders.  Journal of Music Therapy, 52(1), 78-116.

By Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC
Neurologic Music Therapist