Teaching Music to Students with Neuro-Diversities

Music lessons are one of those things that children tend to take on, but sometimes give up later in life. This training can have a significant impact later in life, helping us to stay mentally sharp as we age.

As if this isn’t enough, music training gives us an advantage in school, aids in fine-motor skills, helps us think more creatively, and supports our memory. It makes us more perceptive, more confident, and have more perseverance.

Benefits of Music for Students with Disabilities

It is no secret that music is incredibly beneficial for neuro-typical students, but what about students who have a disability? 

manage and motivate your music students banner

Trusting Relationship

Music training helps to develop trusting relationships. Erica, the parent of my 10-year-old music student with Dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder says, “Your presence of calm, joy-filled, and interest in her is helping her internalize self-worth. This is not music-related, but fundamental to creating a safe place where she feels accepted and can let herself be herself.  She fundamentally cannot learn without feeling wanted and loved.”

Christina Whitlock, says in a Topcast interview, “[Researchers] studied all these different indicators for what was going to trigger a student to be most successful. And what they came down to was it wasn't money, and it wasn't grades, and it wasn’t the economic status, or two-parent households, or any of those things, but to be successful, they had [a] web of influence. [Students] had around five people that were not related to them who were present in their lives, and that connected with them and helped them come into their own, and feel comfortable in their learning and then their growth, and just [feel] safe.”


Neuro-diverse students often have challenges in forming peer-to-peer relationships. Music lessons give students commonality to form trusting relationships with peers. This helps them see other kids their age who also struggle with doing difficult things (practice, struggle, try again). “Having a buddy in the same boat makes such a difference,” Erica says. 

Music helps make connections and establish an emotional understanding for children with physical, mental, and social challenges.   


As teachers, we can reverse roles with our students (the student is the teacher). Often, students may be more open to coaching and feedback as they gain a sense of control when they take the lead. Erica talks about the benefits of role reversal in music lessons. “It takes the shame/guilt/fear off of her when she can make mistakes as someone she's pretending to be rather than feeling in a position of being in the deficit position.”

Teach How They Learn

We usually think of our students with dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and a range of other neurological learning disorders as having a disability, but let’s flip the script. These students are not disabled but neuro-diverse; they learn in different ways. When we are flexible in our teaching methods, we can reach all students. If a student is not grasping a concept, maybe ask yourself if you are teaching them how they can learn. 

Understanding Dyslexia

All Dyslexic brains work a little differently. Some common challenges, however, include:

  • Learning that familiar words have a different musical meaning (eg. note, key, bar, sharp, and flat).
  • Visual tracking from left to right, and top to bottom
  • Rhythm and timing
  • Decoding music symbols. (Symbols for sharps and flats or rhythm notation)
  • Holding musical information in working memory
  • Coordinating use of their hands and feet as they play their instrument

A key sign of dyslexia is trouble decoding words. Decoding words means matching letters to sounds. Kids can also struggle with the ability to recognize the sounds in words (phonemic awareness).  

Students with dyslexia are likely to convert the language to pictures, make meaning of the pictures, and then convert the pictures back into language. For some, this is where the rubber meets the road. The way data is displayed can either streamline or delay this process.  

Here are a few tips to help streamline their learning:

Break it Down. Breaking down an assignment in steps seems to work better, especially when the first steps allow for more audio and pictures (colors, singing, or speaking). Color-coding helps projects/music come together easier for dyslexic students (see how letters for lyrics might be green, notes can be blue, and dynamics can be red).  

Engage the Senses. Neuro-diverse students also benefit from sensory learning. The senses of hearing and feeling of the instrument help process information (notes, melody, rhythm) and make it stick. Cup tapping is a fun way to feel the music.  

Take Your Time. Nineteen-time Grammy Award winner, Tony Bennett, struggles with reading sheet music because of dyslexia. “I just have to work a lot slower. It comes a lot slower. But good learning takes a long time,” he has said. “To really learn something, you have to keep doing it until it appears effortless. So it takes time.” 

Good learning takes time, and this makes private lessons a good choice for students with disabilities. 


Which Instrument?

Just because a dyslexic student may have trouble reading (which can impact a child's ability to read, decode, and interpret music) doesn’t mean they can’t learn to play music and enjoy doing it. Just as music isn’t written the same way for all instruments (drumming, piano, and guitar notation are all written quite differently), the brain systems involved with dyslexia vary from child to child. While reading piano music might be difficult for one child, guitar notation might feel quite natural. The only way to find the right instrument is to try.

Using Tonara Studio

Tonara Studio can help neuro-diverse students with organization and social-emotional learning.  

  • Use the “instructions” area within the assignment tab to create simple, single-step instructions.  Audio and video recordings and website links can give assignments more clarity.
  • Message them during the week.  Don't let your students with neuro-diversities coast through the week without getting them involved. Give them regular feedback and say something positive.  
  • Review, review, review their assignments, making sure they have a firm understanding of what has been covered.   (ie. Do you want to keep this piece on the assignment list and play it just for fun this week?)  Tonara Studio assignments automatically repeat each week. 
  • Create a performance room group for the entire studio or small practice teams.   Want to see your student swell with pride?  Feature a positive aspect of their work! 

Looking to the Future

The benefits of musical training go far beyond the pure joy of creating beautiful music, as it strengthens perseverance, equips students to be creative, and supports better study habits and self-esteem.

Speaking of her daughter’s future, Erica says, “I think she will be able to make her own connections on the value of her piano lessons, how they helped her during the initial challenges of discovering how her brain is wired and be one of the cosmic markers in her life that assures her that she is loved, belongs, and thrives even in hard times (like the pandemic and the processing of diagnosis).  I think about a wonderful Ted Talk by Benjamin Zander where he says success isn't about fame or wealth, but how many shiny eyes you invest in.  I think her lessons are part of keeping her eyes shiny now and doing the same for others when she is older.”  

Marilyn is a freelance blogger/writer who has raised two neuro-diverse children. Her oldest son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 11, and her daughter with an Auditory Processing Disorder at age 6. 

In addition, Marilyn has taught piano to hundreds of students for over 23 years.  She has owned her own successful music studio and currently teaches piano at School for the Arts, Brighton, Michigan. She is skilled at pinpointing her students’ interests and at helping them achieve their next steps in music. She studied music at Julliard and the Richards Institute (Education Through Music - ETM). ETM  promotes physical, mental, and social growth through language, song, movement, and interactive play. In recent years, she holds a B.S. in Journalism with a minor in voice at the University of Kansas.