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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

Striking a Chord: The Benefits of Playing Music for Autistic Individuals

Updated: Jan 4

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


In the symphony of life, music holds a magical power that can resonate with anyone, especially members of the autistic community. Playing music can be more than a mere recreational activity for them. Instead, it can be a multifaceted experience that offers numerous benefits while also serving as a beacon of expression, growth, and connection.

young woman sitting at the piano

Engaging with music by playing an instrument provides a unique platform for autistic individuals to explore and express their emotions, navigate their thoughts, and interact with the world around them in harmonious ways. It has also been shown to offer them a safe and empowering medium to express their feelings.


In this blog post, I explore the numerous benefits of playing music for autistic individuals and offer some tips for getting started. Let's begin.


Emotional and Psychological Benefits

Music, with its beautiful melodies and soothing rhythms, serves as a powerful tool for emotional expression and regulation for autistic individuals. One part of why is through how music provides them with a unique language that transcends words.


Emotional Expression and Regulation

For many autistic individuals, verbal communication can be challenging. Playing music offers an alternative form of communication that allows them to convey their emotions and feelings without using words.


The act of creating music enables autistic individuals to explore and express their inner world. Doing so provides a sense of relief and understanding of their emotions. Whether it’s the gentle strumming of a guitar, the soft melody of a piano, or the rhythmic beating of drums, each musical note played allows them to communicate their joy, sadness, excitement, or calmness, which results in emotional stability and regulation.


Moreover, playing music has been noted to have a calming effect that reduces anxiety and stress levels among autistic individuals. The repetitive and structured nature of music provides a sense of predictability and security, which helps them manage their emotions more effectively. This therapeutic aspect of music makes it an invaluable resource for emotional health and well-being.


Boosting Self-Esteem and Confidence

Mastering a musical instrument is a journey of personal growth and achievement. For autistic individuals, this journey can be empowering. Learning to play music, hitting each note, and eventually producing a melody or song provides a sense of accomplishment and boosts their self-esteem and confidence. The positive reinforcement and praise received from parents, teachers, and peers further validates their efforts to make them feel valued and capable.


Cognitive Development and Academic Performance

autistic man sitting in a chair playing guitar against an orange background

Another benefit to playing music is how it sharpens the mind. In other words, playing music grants autistic individuals many cognitive and academic benefits.


Enhanced Concentration and Focus

Playing a musical instrument demands attention and concentration. For autistic individuals, this focused activity can improve their attention span and concentration levels. When playing music, a huge level of focus is needed to read musical notes, understand rhythms, and coordinate hand movements to produce sound. Over time, this practice enhances their ability to concentrate not just in music but in other areas of life and learning as well.


Improved Memory and Learning Skills

Memory plays an important role in learning to play an instrument as musicians must remember notes, scales, and rhythms. This active engagement with music positively impacts the memory and learning skills of autistic individuals. The repetitive nature of music practice aids memory recall, which helps them not only remember musical patterns but also retain academic information.


Social Skills and Communication Enhancement

Making social connections can be difficult for autistic individuals. Although it won’t solve every social skills challenge, music offers opportunities for improving social skills and enhancing communication.


Encouraging Social Interaction

Engaging in group music activities, such as ensembles, bands, or choirs, provides autistic individuals numerous opportunities for social interaction. These settings encourage collaboration and teamwork as participants must work together to create a cohesive musical performance.


Through these interactions, autistic individuals can develop and practice essential social skills, including taking turns, listening actively, and responding appropriately to social cues. Furthermore, the shared experience of making music can create a sense of belonging and camaraderie among participants, helping autistic individuals form connections with their peers. Speaking as someone who was in band from elementary school to college, there are many people I wouldn’t have met or befriended had I not participated in the subject.


Building Empathy and Understanding

Playing music also plays a key role in developing empathy and understanding. Engaging with and creating music allows individuals to explore various emotions and expressions, creating a deeper understanding of themselves and others. The emotional depth and range found in music can help autistic individuals relate to and empathize with the feelings of others, thereby enhancing their social relationships.

view of an orchestra looking down from above the violin section

Motor Skills and Physical Coordination

For autistic individuals, playing music is more than a delightful sensory experience. Music is also a valuable means of developing motor skills and enhancing physical coordination.


Developing Fine Motor Skills

Playing musical instruments often requires precise finger movements and hand-eye coordination. For example, playing the piano involves using both hands to strike different keys while reading sheet music; meanwhile, playing the guitar requires coordinating fretting and strumming.


These actions help autistic individuals develop and refine their fine motor skills. The repetitive motions involved in playing instruments provide consistent practice in controlling small movements, which can translate into improved dexterity and coordination in other areas of life.


Rhythmic Understanding and Body Movement

Understanding rhythm is fundamental to music, and it also plays an important role in coordinating body movements. Engaging with rhythmic patterns in music can help autistic individuals improve their sense of timing and rhythm in physical activities. For those who may struggle with motor planning and execution, practicing with (for example) percussion instruments can offer structured, enjoyable ways to enhance their bodily coordination and rhythmic understanding.


Therapeutic and Healing Aspects of Music

Music, with its soothing and healing properties, serves as a therapeutic ally for autistic individuals. It offers a sanctuary of comfort and a source of personal growth and exploration.


Music Therapy Insights

Music therapy has emerged as a powerful and effective approach for supporting autistic individuals. This therapeutic practice involves using music to facilitate positive changes in behavior and well-being.


Through engaging in music therapy, autistic individuals can explore a variety of instruments and musical styles, each offering different sensory experiences and opportunities for emotional expression. Therapists often tailor musical activities to address specific therapeutic goals, such as improving communication, reducing anxiety, or enhancing social skills. The non-threatening and enjoyable environment created through music therapy allows participants to explore and express themselves freely while experiencing healing and growth in the process.


Personalized Musical Experience

Every autistic individual is unique. The same can be said for their response to and engagement with music. Recognizing this, it is important for autistic individuals to personalize their musical experiences. Some may find solace in the gentle strumming of a guitar while others may prefer the robust and dynamic sounds of percussion instruments.


Providing opportunities for them to explore different instruments and musical styles enables them to discover what resonates with them most. This personalized approach to engaging with music not only enhances their enjoyment but also maximizes the therapeutic and developmental benefits they can derive from the musical experience.


What to Know Before You Start Playing

woman sitting in her apartment by a window practicing the guitar

Perhaps this post has convinced you to try playing a musical instrument. However, playing music isn’t a hobby that can be done casually, especially if you need to invest in an instrument that may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. It’s a hobby that requires a lot of dedication if you are serious about it, so it can be handy knowing the following information if you decide to play music.


Understand the Time Commitment

When you start playing your chosen instrument, you are not going to immediately master it. Playing music requires a lot of your time if you want to become skilled at it. This is why it’s important to go in knowing that it will take time for you to grow into a talented musician if that is your goal.


You may start by practicing and performing beginner pieces that are built around playing easier notes, but with enough time, you’ll eventually be skilled enough to play more advanced songs that frequently use harder notes.


Plan to Practice Often

Taking time out of your day to practice on a daily basis is one of the most important elements of learning an instrument. Playing music won’t be a skill you’ll effortlessly master. To truly get the most out of playing an instrument and to reach a point where you’re good at it, you’ll have to consistently find time to practice for 30 to 60 minutes each day.


Hire a Teacher If You Are Struggling

Whether you’re playing an instrument for an ensemble or as a hobby, you aren’t guaranteed to master everything yourself. If you find yourself struggling to play your chosen instrument, then hire a teacher. The help provided by a good teacher will allow you to better understand your instrument, learn the proper techniques, and become a better musician.


Conclusion

Analyzing music’s impact on autistic individuals reveals many benefits that overall orchestrate a melody of hope, empowerment, and transformation. Engaging with and playing music opens doors to emotional expression and provides a unique outlet for feelings that might be challenging to otherwise articulate. It also serves as a stabilizing force, offering comfort and a sense of control over their environment, thereby boosting self-esteem and confidence.


Beyond the emotional realm, there are many significant cognitive enhancements observed in autistic individuals who play music. The practice demands and nurtures focus, attention, and memory skills, laying a strong foundation for improved academic performance and everyday functioning. Learning and mastering an instrument is also a journey toward greater self-reliance and belief in one's abilities.


Music is many things to any autistic individual wanting to play. It’s a gateway to meet with new people. A physical action that allows them to develop their motor skills. A therapeutic experience that provides a safe space for exploration and personal growth. Most importantly, music is a chance for autistic individuals to engage with an art form that doubles as an opportunity to express themselves in a medium all about using harmonies to communicate and connect with others.


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