Music Therapy and Neurodivergence– Everything you Need to Know

Neurodivergent means having a brain that functions or forms differently, so how does music therapy affect that?

Neurodivergent brains often identify sounds differently than non-neurodivergent brains. Due to this, music therapy can be especially helpful to neurodivergent people. The term neurodivergence was coined by a scientist in the 1990s to show that all brains are different from each other– and no one brain is alike. 

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence is when a person’s brain functions are different from what is considered typical. This can affect their functions, behaviors, and processing abilities. The idea behind the word is to ensure that these differences are not shown as bad or incorrect. They are just that– differences. Differences from one another are what make each of us special. Neurodiversity can mean a variety of things. From autism to ADHD, they are all a result of a normal, natural variation in the human genome. Not everyone is born neurodiverse– a person can be born with one of these conditions, or they can develop them over time. 

What conditions are considered neurodiverse diagnoses?

Neurodiversity can be a variety of medical conditions, including mental, physical, and learning disabilities. These are included, but not limited to: 

  • Autism
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia 
  • Down syndrome
  • Anxiety
  • Cerebral palsy
  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia

Headphones laying on a table

Music therapy is known to have many physical and mental benefits. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is a psychological and physical therapy that can include, but is not limited to improvisation, sound description, structured playing of musical instruments and vocal chords, group therapy, percussion instruments, classical music therapy, or vocal psychotherapy. Music therapy also has the ability to affect emotions in various ways, and can be used for depression and anxiety therapy as well as helping individuals regain communication skills after accidents. 

Music therapy is used for a variety of medical conditions, including dementia, autism, chronic pain, diabetes, cardiac conditions, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury– just to name a few. Music therapy activates different parts of the brain that influence memory, emotion, movement, sensory relay, and decision-making. It is known to lower blood pressure and decrease muscle tension. Music therapy is especially beneficial for children, because it can encourage self-expression, communication, and development. 

Fingers on the keys of a piano

Music has the same effect on the brain as exercise does for the body. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

How does music affect the brain?

Research has shown that listening to music has the same effect on the brain as exercise does for the body. Music is known to reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and improve memory, among other things. Music therapy has the same effects, but on a deeper level. 

Music can increase functions in the frontal lobe. The temporal lobe, or where words are interpreted, is the part of the brain that helps humans to appreciate music. The Broca’s Area is the section of the brain that produces speech, so music like singing or playing an instrument can help this section to improve communication. The Wernicke’s Area is the part of the brain that helps us to understand language, both written and spoken. This is the part of the brain that helps humans to analyze the music they are listening to. 

The Occipital Lobe processes what humans see, therefore this is used when reading music or playing an instrument. The cerebellum is where our memory comes from, and also aids in our bodies movement. When you hear about the term muscle memory, this is where that comes from. Even people who cannot remember certain things will be able to remember how to play their instrument because of this. The Nucleus Accumbens is where pleasure comes from, therefore it plays a large role in addiction. Although music can be addictive, music therapy can also be used to help people with addiction, so this section of the brain would be targeted for that type of therapy. 

The Amygdala is where emotions come from. Music has a direct role in affecting this part of the brain because music can also trigger emotions, whether they are good or bad. The Hippocampus plays a large role in memory, but also does a lot of other things. Music can affect this part of the brain by improving memory. The Hypothalamus is what controls the body’s nervous and endocrine systems. Music can cause change in these systems, such as increasing and decreasing heart rate or blood pressure. 

The Corpus Callosum is what connects the two sides of the brain and allows them to communicate with one another. This is where hand-eye coordination comes into play, which is important when playing an instrument. Finally, there is the Putamen, which regulates body movement and processes rhythm. Music increases any response to rhythm, so that is how this is connected. 

Child playing a music instrument

Music therapy activates the parts of the brain that control sensory and auditory functions. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

How does music affect a neurodivergent brain differently?

Since music therapy activates the parts of the brain that control sensory and auditory functions, it can help those who have neurodivergent brains to address issues with sensory processing and integration, promotes communication and expression (with or without verbal communication), addressing social skills and learning how to create meaningful relationships, and can be beneficial in a variety of other ways, depending on a patient’s diagnosis. 

Due to the fact that people who are neurodivergent sometimes interpret sounds differently, music therapy treatments occasionally will need to be altered to accommodate those differences. A patient-centered approach is typically used in music therapy, meaning therapists meet the patient where they are. 

4 children playing with a ukulele

There are a variety of types of music therapy methods utilized for different medical conditions. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

What types of music therapy are used for neurodivergence? 

There are many different types of music therapy that are all used for different things. 

  • Dalcroze eurhythmics: This is a method of music therapy that most music therapists learn during their undergraduate studies. This focuses on movement, so it is often used with patients who have motor difficulty. 
  • Kodaly: This method of music therapy is based on rhythm, sequence, movement, and accuracy. This is often used on patients with mental and physical disabilities, because it focuses on motor skills and music literacy. 
  • Nordoff-Robbins: This method is widely practiced because it was built to be adaptable to every type of person. There is a major focus on creation in this type of therapy. 
  • The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM): This method uses imagery and classical music as a form of psychotherapy. This is utilized to support the processing of experiences and trauma. 

There are many other methods for music therapy, but we are not able to include them all. Each has their own methods to help patients grow and develop. 

Person playing guitar

Music therapy can be utilized as treatment for a variety of medical conditions. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Music therapy is a helpful form of therapy that can be utilized for a great deal of medical conditions, but is heavily encouraged for neurodivergence because of its variety of benefits. Reaching out to a primary care doctor first is a great way to find recommendations for music therapists in your area.

Savannah Dawson
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