The Use of Music and Songs in Speech and Language Therapy

  • June 11, 2007
  • Henriette Langdon

I have always been intrigued by the impact of music and songs as therapy tools to address the diverse speech, language, and communication challenges of our younger and older clients. When we think about the therapeutic influence of music on the development of speech and language competence, Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) comes to mind. The principles of this method are based on the role of the right hemisphere in processing and production of propositional language.  Patients who benefit most from this type of treatment demonstrate certain characteristics such as; fair auditory comprehension, limited verbal output, and try at self-correction. In many ways, the patients present the profile of Broca’s aphasia.  The space of this column does not permit me to describe the course of therapy. However, most of you reading this column have learned the technique in your graduate classes and may have used the approach in treating some of your patients suffering from aphasia. There are numerous references to this topic. It would be interesting to investigate how MIT may work for aphasic patients with bilingual or multilingual backgrounds.

As I began exploring the influence of music and language performance for the purpose of this column, I had difficulty finding much research or many research-evidenced practices that explore the relationships between both of these areas in younger clients, with the exception of a recent article by Kouri and Winn (2006). As the authors mention, there is some research in this area, but it is dated and the clinical application is often unclear. Kouri and Winn found that preschool-age children with language delays and mild developmental delays learned more words when those were presented in a song format. The paucity of research appears incredible because we all have observed or used music when working with regular students as well as others who have various communication challenges.  Additionally, the use of music and songs as teaching tools seems to decline in importance in the upper-elementary grades. With increasing budgetary restraints, the music and art programs seem to be first one’s to vanish from the regular school curriculum. There are music programs at the junior and high school levels but, overall, music is not considered to be an academic subject, and it is not always accessible to ALL students throughout the school years. The benefits of music are numerous. Teachers and various therapists including music therapists use music as a therapeutic medium to enhance memory skills, manage stress, develop orientation and mobility as well as increase gross and fine motor skills.

My side of the story:

Now that you have read the first two paragraphs of this column, you wonder why I even bring this topic up. When I was working with elementary bilingual Spanish-English speaking students who experienced various language and academic challenges, I found that using songs enabled the students to develop strategies to become more successful learners. Although I could not document how this approach enhanced their communication and academic performance, I could observe increased ability to attend and respond to tasks that required auditory memory and attention. The school site where I worked for many years was one where bilingual programs were being phased out as a result of Proposition 227, but where the use of the primary language (Spanish) was still “accepted” (but only for a limited time in the classroom). I was fortunate to offer therapy to students in Spanish and I used songs as tools for my therapy. My sources were songs written by José Luis Orozco an educator, performer, and songwriter. Orozco’s works are available in beautifully illustrated books as well as tapes and CDs.

I familiarized myself with the themes of Orozco’s repertoire and used songs that related to themes covered in the regular curriculum or that could be used in meeting the students’ language goals. I will provide three examples of how I incorporated songs into my language therapy and of course, those examples can be expanded exponentially depending on the needs of your students.

  1. Working with students who need to be more aware of the name of body parts.Use the song of Juanito.In this song, children touch/move different body parts as they listen to the song. Body parts reviewed include “finger,” “foot,” “knee,” “hip,” “hand,” “elbow,” “shoulder,” and “head ” among others. The song can be used in many different ways like for following directions, requesting the students to name the various body parts listed in the song, and asking them to remember the order in which the body parts were named. The students may also be asked which body parts were not mentioned in the song. The lesson can be adapted to students of different ages. For example, older students may write down the body parts and discuss the order in which the body parts were named. For example, in this song the first body part is “finger”, followed by “hand”, other body parts are from the waist down, but the last part is “head”. The advantage of this song is that the singer repeats the body parts already mentioned as a new body part is introduced. An activity of this nature enhances sequencing and memory skills.
  2. Working with students that need more awareness of rhyming skills.Use the song of Las Horas (The Hours).In this song, students are exposed to the concept of rhyming. For example, the song says “A la una, como tuna; a las dos, como arroz, etc) (At one o’clock I eat the tuna fruit, at two o’clock I eat rice). This is a marvelous opportunity for students to become aware and practice rhyming.  Metalinguistic awareness is a skill that transfers from language to language and this has been documented for languages like Spanish and English, for example.
  3. Working with students who need to enhance auditory memory skills.When I was a grade school student we were asked to memorize rhymes and poems. I am able to recite those today in any instance. It’s as if it is a part of me and it’s also very typical of Mexico, where I grew up. Today, I find that children are not able to recite anything… so I am advocating teaching them nursery rhymes and poems. This idea can be repeated with songs and rhymes from any country of the world.Here is an example of a song/rhyme that is sung to very young children, and could be revisited with all students. It is up to the SLP to make this song meaningful to his/her students. This where we can be successful with our creativity. Asserrín, Asserán. Ask your students to memorize this poem.
    Asserín, Asserán.
    los maderos de San Juan,
    piden pan, no les dan,
    piden queso, les dan un hueso.
    Se les atora en el pescuezo
    y comienzan a llorar
    en la puerta del zaguán,
    y les hacen rigui, riqui.
    riqui, riqui, riqui, ran.
    “Asserín, Asserán,”
    sing the termites from San Juan.
    They ask bread, which they don’t get.

    They ask for cheese-they get a piece.
    They say, “Oh, heck! Cheese in the neck!”
    They all lament, and they all cry.
    They sit to implore, close to the door.
    Then they giggle with the tickle.
    Tickle, tickle, tickle, giggle.

    You may adapt any of the activities to request your students to repeat or write what they heard. Once again, the implications of this type of a therapy approach are endless. This song would be ideal if you are working on developing production of tap /r/ and trilled /r/.

Songs that students may enjoy listening to could be used for similar purposes, except that the lyrics must be screened carefully for content.

I know I have touched the topic of using music and songs as therapy tools for students who present various speech, language, and communication challenges on a very superficial level. However, I hope that after reading this column you will write to me to share your ideas or give me your feedback.

Selected references:
  • Kouri, T.A. , & Winn, J. (2006). Lexical learning in sung and spoken story script contexts. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 22, (3), 293-313.
  • Orozco, José Luis. (ongoing).
  • Sparks, R. W. (2001).  Melodic intonation therapy. R. Chapey (Ed.,) Language intervention strategies in aphasia and related neurogenic communication disorders (4th Ed) (pp.703-717). Philadelphia: Lipppincott, Williams & Wilkins.

Coming up in the QUÉ TAL issue of July 2007
The Latest on Publications and Conferences on Bilingualism & Bilingual Issues

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

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