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Using Music to Learn and Practice Communication Skills - May 2008

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Using Music to Learn and Practice Communication Skills

By: Melinda Chalfonte-Evans, PhD, CCC-SLP

The challenge-how can we make the process of speech-language intervention more enjoyable for children and less stressful for their parents? The answer, music!

Music is a powerful tool for connecting and communicating. Music brings experience to life and provides a fun and natural context for learning and practicing new skills. Music can teach sounds, concepts, vocabulary and grammar. Because movement is a natural part of music it is also a great tool for teaching the motor skills that underlie speech, feeding and fluency. Music can also serve to soothe, calm, and distract the child from the drudgery of practice. Music uses sounds and silences to structure time and it can serve as a tool for enhancing memory through repetition. Finally, music can be easily adapted to a wide range of individual abilities.

Professionals dedicated to bridging the gap from research to practice have long examined the connection between music and language to explore the potential use of melody and rhythm as therapeutic tools. Research has demonstrated that even very young infants are interested in music. This natural attraction to music has implications for the use of music in infants' social, emotional, and language development. Music and language form a natural partnership due to the prosody or melody of speech and both have the power to engage and sustain the infant's attention.

Parents are also instinctively drawn to music as a way to communicate with and entertain young children. Mothers of all cultures speak to their infants in song- like patterns known as "motherese" that consistent of different rhythms, inflections, sequences, and intensities. Motherese, like singing, encompasses elements of music (melody, harmony) and speech (phonological constraints, syntax, semantics). This melodic communication helps build the foundation for language development.

Music stimulates and uses many parts of the brain. Typically, the left hemisphere is wired for rhythm and recognition of melody while the right hemisphere is activated for pitch contour and timbre. For some other musical functions, the hemispheres reverse dominance. This cooperation between different parts of the brain also occurs for speaking. Regions supporting aspects of language, such as vocabulary, syntax, and phonology, are located in the left hemisphere while the right hemisphere plays a greater role in processing the prosodic, rhythmic, intonational, or melodic characteristics of both speech and song. Oral and laryngeal motor activity appears to be more directly controlled by regions in the right hemisphere when words are sung rather than spoken. This provides some insight into the nature of disorders such as stuttering and why singing can promote fluency. Because different aspects of music and speech are represented in different parts of the brain, clinicians and researchers continually explore therapeutic strategies focusing on melody and other musical elements.

Music came to the forefront in speech-language therapy in the 1970's with the development of an approach called Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT). MIT was originally designed for use with adults who suffered from aphasia as the result of a stroke. MIT was based on a physiological model of brain functioning that specified right hemispheric dominance for music and speech prosody. MIT has also been suggested, but not confirmed, as an intervention tool for young children with verbal apraxia.

Music and our understanding of how the hemispheres of the brain cooperate can have a positive effect on therapeutic interventions from a variety of perspectives. Brain scans confirm that music is a euphoria-producing stimulant making it a great tool for creating an emotionally pleasing environment in therapy.

Researchers have suggested that music may be an effective strategy for addressing communication and psychosocial development in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Parents and caregivers of youngsters with ASD have reported that skills learned in music-based activities tend to generalize more readily to non-music environments. Musical activities such as interactive singing can encourage social interaction and communication between youngsters with ASD, peers and adults. These activities also provide opportunities for youngsters to initiate requests and make choices of desired music and communication partners.

In the classroom music can have a positive effect on reading and literacy experiences as well as second- language learning. Songs, in conjunction with movement and literacy activities, extend the learning of word meanings beyond word recognition. Simple, repetitive melodies and rhythms and lyrics with clear, concrete words along with the use of pictures and movements seem to have the most benefit for second language learning.

Competence in communication is essential for a child's personal, social and academic success. Interventions that target sound production, language skills, fluency, social communication and play skills are crucial for the development of children with speech-language disorders and developmental disabilities. Music can be used by speech-language pathologists, early childhood educators and families to teach and practice a variety of skills related to the development of communication skills.

Songs can be used in individual or group speech- language therapy, in the classroom or childcare setting, at home or in the car. Musical experiences can give children the concepts, behaviors and self- talk that support the development of speech, language and social interaction skills. Music is a natural tool for teaching and a great motivator. It offers us one more avenue for connecting with young children with communication disorders.

This Month's Featured Vendor: Music in My Mouth,

Special Thanks to Melinda Chalfonte-Evans, PhD, CCC-SLP, for providing an article for this issue's Therapy Corner.

Melinda Chalfonte-Evans, PhD, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's Division of Speech Pathology. In conjunction with musician David Kisor and Tom Lottman of Children, Inc. she has developed Music in My Mouth a CD of 26 original songs and a written manual to address a variety of speech-related issues. For more information about Music in My Mouth visit them on the web through this link: Cincinnati Children's Hospital

Tags: May 2008 Newsletter SLP OT Music Therapy Article