Can music therapy help? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but often it’s well worth a try.

Emotions affect learning. And many struggling readers feel extremely negative about reading. Your child may feel depressed about his (or her) struggles. He may keep telling himself (or herself) that:

  • I can’t read. I’m stupid.
  • I’ll always fail.
  • I’ll never read. No use trying.
  • I’ll slink down so no one asks me to read.
  • I’ll make the teacher kick me out of class.

The longer and deeper pessimistic thoughts and negative emotions plague these children, the longer their mental health, motivation to read, and achievement will suffer. They pay a terrible price, a price that may well continue far into the future.

To reverse this, it’s critical to help them replace their negative emotions with positive ones, ones that make them want to read, want to make the effort, and want to enjoy good books. For some struggling readers, music therapy may be key to success.

Why? Because music and musical therapy affect emotions and emotions affect learning:

"Music seems to offer a novel system of communication rooted in emotions rather than in meaning…. Music reliably conveys certain sentiments…. We may never know why music exists…. But even amid uncertainty about music’s origins, we can still use songs to pump ourselves up or calm ourselves down, ease pain and anxiety, bond with others or simply move people to tears."

"Emotions are an essential aspect of human nature and play a central role in interpersonal relationships, personal well-being, and therapeutic change. Music is intimately linked to emotions and both have served adaptive functions throughout human evolution. Music therapy is an ideal clinical modality due to its inherent power to activate and transform a client’s emotional state within the context of the therapeutic encounter."

Think about yourself. If you’ve had a grueling day, does listening to a favorite piece of music rally your spirits? It rallies mine.

If my day was tough and I’m emotionally drained or irritable, I’ll repeatedly listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Nicola Benedetti’s violin, or Clifton’s Chenier’s zydeco music. Occasionally I’ll throw in the driving music of Bob Seger, Duane Eddy, or the Max Weinberg 7.

But this is me. I like my music. My wife, kids and grandchildren like theirs. You like yours. Your children (or students) like theirs. Though the music may differ, it makes sense to play whatever music can rally the spirits of struggling readers.

Playing such music should extend beyond music therapy. Tutors and teachers can play spirit-rallying music at the start of reading lessons. Similarly, parents can do the same as their children start homework.

So, why do schools and reading specialists forget the power of music when trying to help struggling, discouraged readers replace their negative emotions about reading with positive ones? Why do they not associate reading with spirit-rallying music? Why do they forget the power of music to motivate?

Probably because music is usually the province of music classes, not reading instruction, not counseling. Then there’s the age-old retort of some teachers and administrators, "We’ve never done that. We don’t do those things. We teach academics." Some parents make similar statements, like "Reading is for reading, not music."

When children’s progress in reading suffers from pessimistic thoughts, negative, self-deprecating emotions, or fears of failure, and at best they’ve gained little from traditional reading interventions and counseling, I suggest you seriously consider music therapy. I’ve seen it work.

An outstanding book on the topic is Dr. John Pellitteri’s "Emotional Processes in Music Therapy." As Dr. Pellitteri, licensed psychologist and associate professor of counseling at Queens College, City University of New York makes clear, music therapy involves far more than playing music. It uses music to help children solve the emotional issues that pain them.

It requires a highly trained, skilled, and credentialed counselor who understands how to integrate music and counseling and how to use music to influence emotions and thoughts. And by influencing emotions and thoughts, music can influence learning.

If you think your child might benefit from music therapy, have him evaluated by a music therapist. Then consider these suggestions:

Enroll him in music therapy with a certified, master’s-level music therapist who creates a good relationship with him.

Ask the therapist to observe him in reading instruction and interview his teachers and reading specialist to better understand what might be fueling his pessimism and negative emotions. If he’s in special education, request that his IEP (Individualized Education Program) team schedule music therapy a related service.

Teams that agree will arrange for therapy. (Schools that don’t have music therapists can contract for them.) Chapter 11 of "Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds" defines and discusses related services.

Ask your child’s teachers and his reading specialist to closely and systematically monitor his attention, behavior, comfort, motivation, and reading achievement.

This will help to assess the effectiveness of therapy. If he’s reaping substantial benefits, continue the program; if not, revise or replace it. Keep in mind that progress may be slow at first; it may take three months to start seeing the effects. If your child is in special education, his IEP should have a strong section on progress monitoring, something that’s critical but too often ignored or given the short shrift.

Chapter 7 of "Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds" explains how you and your child’s teachers can monitor his progress. Frequent, valid monitoring helps you, your child’s teachers, and your child. For more information on progress monitoring, download and read the free MultiBriefs article, "Is progress monitoring a waste of time?"

Ask his music therapist to collect data on his progress and share it with you, your child's teachers and whoever else is helping him in or after school.

This is important. Why? Because therapy, like teaching, is an experiment. You need data to know if it’s working and, if not, to adjust or replace the program. Often, other involved, knowledgeable people can offer helpful suggestions.

Ask his therapist to show you how you might help him at home without becoming a therapist.

To learn more about music therapy, I strongly recommend Dr. Pellitteri’s book. Although it’s written for professional music therapists, it might teach you, as it did me, a great deal about an important but underappreciated therapy with great promise for helping struggling readers.