Why isn’t everybody talking about music and autism?

In this article, Chris Blake, co-founder of RiChmusic and Specialist Music Teacher for people with severe learning difficulties (SLD), discusses his personal experiences of music and the growing research base to suggest that music may have a fundamental connection for many autistic people.

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Author: Christopher Blake

Why isn’t everybody talking about music and autism?

Do you think of music as the property of the music therapist who comes in once a week? What if it’s a bigger thing for many people with autism, something that connects very deeply? Could it be a tool for many of us to use, aiding connection, communication, motivation in our varied disciplines? Maybe you do already! My life, work and study of the last 13 years leads me to believe that it could be and to wonder why we’re not all talking about it.

It was in 2003, when I was still a professional performing musician, that I first experienced the extraordinary response that music workshops are met with in SLD special schools. Comments from the disbelieving “our children don’t sit that long,” to the incredulous “my child never pays attention like that” began to follow our work with some regularity.

Beginning to work in one particular school on a weekly basis, I noticed that if I “accompanied” a child’s movements, playing a march as they walked along, or sliding down the notes on the keyboard to a bump at the bottom if they fell or dropped something, some children became very interested in me and my keyboard.

I started working individually with those children. A silent child began to vocalise, a child with severe behaviour issues sat like a lamb every week and started to learn melodies at the piano and a painfully shy child sang a full Disney song with words and actions first to her teacher, then to her class, later to the whole school. After some time the staff of the school began to say to me “Do you not know that almost all the children you work with have autism?” I thought we were choosing the ones who responded most to music…

I studied first at Queens University Belfast and then, after leaving my job as a professional horn player, at Goldsmiths, under Prof Pamela Heaton, one of the leading researchers in music and autism.

I met and worked with John Lubbock of Music for Autism and heard his accounts of unexpected positive relational and behavioural responses from children with autism when exposed to live music.

I observed Prof Adam Ockelford at work developing the gifts of exceptionally talented children with severe autism. I saw music used to help young adults with autism on the difficult path of transition from school into the community. And, as a board member of the Northern Ireland Music Therapy Trust, I became familiar with the work of music therapy and its potential to improve aspects of attention, social interaction and communication. I have come to believe that music has an extraordinary place in the lives of many people with autism.

The research base is small but growing and papers from music psychology, neuro-imaging, music therapy and music education start to form an empirically trustworthy picture to support the anecdotal evidence.

A remarkable number of people with autism can tell the identity of a note without reference to an instrument - 1:20 (Brown et al., 2003). It’s a skill very few typically developing people have - 1:10,000 (Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993). Compared with typically developing controls, children with autism are ahead in telling the difference between one note and another when they were close together in pitch (Heaton, 2005).

Even when they were closer together than in normal musical usage (Stanutz, Wapnick, & Burack, 2014), they are ahead in telling the difference between the instruments playing the notes (Heaton, 2009) and they can remember music better (Stanutz et al., 2014).

While recognising an emotion on someone’s face is a struggle for many with autism (Harms, Martin, & Wallace, 2010), when the emotion is portrayed in music, identifying it is not a problem (Allen, Hill, & Heaton, 2009; Heaton, Hermelin, & Pring, 1999).  An fMRI study showed that there were no abnormalities in neural networks involved in emotion recognition in music (Gebauer, Skewes, Westphael, Heaton, & Vuust, 2014).

Lim (2010) has found that music can be used to help language acquisition. Ockelford (2013) presents case studies where children with severe autism are seen to use music as a complex language that can even include humour. Sharda et al (2015) found that the brain patterns of typically developing and autistic people were very different listening to spoken words, but not when the same words were sung. The 2014 Cochrane Review (Geretsegger, Elefant, Moessler, & Gold, 2014) found that social interaction and communication skills could both be improved by music therapy intervention.

Not surprisingly, with all these findings, music is found to be motivational to people with autism (Heaton, 2009).

So can we bring music and autism out from behind musicians’ closed doors onto a public stage? But perhaps you already do sing with your clients? Can we talk some more?


Allen, R., Hill, E., & Heaton, P. (2009). `Hath charms to soothe . . .': An exploratory study of how high-functioning adults with ASD experience music. Autism, 13(1), 21-41. doi: 10.1177/1362361307098511

Brown, W. A., Cammuso, K., Sachs, H., Winklosky, B., Mullane, J., Bernier, R., . . . Folstein, S. E. (2003). Autism-related language, personality, and cognition in people with absolute pitch: results of a preliminary study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(2), 163-167.

Gebauer, L., Skewes, J., Westphael, G., Heaton, P., & Vuust, P. (2014). Intact brain processing of musical emotions in autism spectrum disorder, but more cognitive load and arousal in happy vs. sad music. Frontiers in neuroscience, 8, 192-192. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00192

Geretsegger, M., Elefant, C., Moessler, K. A., & Gold, C. (2014). Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews(6), CD004381. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004381.pub3

Harms, M. B., Martin, A., & Wallace, G. L. (2010). Facial emotion recognition in autism spectrum disorders: a review of behavioral and neuroimaging studies. Neuropsychology review, 20(3), 290-322. Heaton, P. (2005). Interval and contour processing in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(6), 787-793. doi: 10.1007/s10803-005-0024-7

Heaton, P. (2009). Assessing musical skills in autistic children who are not savants. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1522), 1443-1447. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0327

Heaton, P., Hermelin, B., & Pring, L. (1999). Can children with autistic spectrum disorders perceive affect in music? An experimental investigation. Psychological medicine, 29(06), 1405-1410.

Lim, H. A. (2010). Effect of “developmental speech and language training through music” on speech production in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of music therapy, 47(1), 2-26.

Ockelford, A. (2013). Music, Language and Autism: Exceptional Strategies for Exceptional Minds: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Sharda, M., Midha, R., Malik, S., Mukerji, S., & Singh, N. C. (2015). Fronto-Temporal Connectivity is Preserved During Sung but Not Spoken Word Listening, Across the Autism Spectrum. Autism Research, 8(2), 174-186. doi: 10.1002/aur.1437

Stanutz, S., Wapnick, J., & Burack, J. A. (2014). Pitch discrimination and melodic memory in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 18(2), 137-147. doi: 10.1177/1362361312462905

Takeuchi, A., & Hulse, S. (1993). Absolute Pitch. Psychological Bulletin, 113(2), 345-361. doi: 10.1037//0033-2909.113.2.345

Date added: 27 January 2016


Tue, 22/03/2016 - 11:52

Dear Chris, thank you for your interesting article, particularly about people with autism telling the identity of a note without reference to an instrument - as I have witnessed this in my own sessions - and dissonance works well when working musicially in many settings. I have been working with an autistic echolaic young man (21) for 3 years using improvisation to elicit communication, interaction and developed songwriting skills. He is now able to engage in sessions 45 mins long where he flows vocally in language and melody. He performed one of his own songs with a band last week in front of friends and family!

Im aware that music can communicate into the autistic mind and would welcome the chance to widen its reach within the autistic community. I have just completed a Post Graduate Diploma at Nordoff Robbins in London, where this work occurs on a daily basis.

I look forward to hearing more about your work.

Kind Regards

Dominique Levack.

Thu, 19/05/2016 - 00:32

Hi Dominique,

brilliant to hear about your client! Also just been at Nordoff Robbins Plus Conference and met more people excited about this work - were you there?

I am also starting a PhD at Goldsmiths with a focus on techniques and approaches to teaching music to people with autism and would be very keen to hear from anyone involved in this type of work. I use the word "teach" to mean the encouragement and development of musical expression by voice or instrument (traditional or electronic) and to differentiate it from music as therapy - although in reality the differentiation is not always very clear!!




Tue, 06/06/2017 - 23:39

Hi Chris

How are you getting on with your PhD?

Do let me know if you want any case studies to support your work. My student has recently recieved a Bronze Arts Award and an account of our work will be published in Autism Parenting Magazine this summer.



Wed, 01/11/2017 - 08:42

Hello Chris,


Thank you for sharing this article, your experience really is fascinating.

I was hoping to contact you to ask for some advice... I am currently a Masters student at the University of Bordeaux, studying Clinical Psychology and Psychopathology. 

For my Masters dissertation, I have planned on doing a study on how musicotherapy and music in general can help improve teenagers with autism's social skills. For this, I am in the process of creating a workshop at my place of internship, an "IME" (institut-médicalisé-éducatif) for mentally handicapped children and teenagers, including young autistic people.

I am contacting you today because I'm really not too sure how to go about creating my workshop, so that I can use the term "musicotherapy". Also, I know you need to take a course and have a degree in this line of work, so perhaps I cannot use this term at all ?

I really look forward to hearing from you, and I hope you have a great day !


Best regards,


Jeremi Korhonen

Wed, 10/01/2018 - 14:35

Hello Chris,


Thank you for the great read! I am currently conducting a research exploring how individuals on the spectrum tend to experience, perceive and engage with emotions in music, and your read boosted my confidence of how relevant the research is.

As I am a student at the University of Glasgow, and new to this field of research, I do not have the contacts I need in order to recruit participants for my research. I'm looking for adolescent/adult individuals with an autism spectrum diagnosis to spend a moment to complete the online experiment which involves listening to music clips and answering questions regarding their emotional contents (takes about 30 min in total). It has approval from the Univeristy of Glasgow ethics review committee.

I thought I would write to you since you are an expert in the area, and we share the interest of knowing more about the connection that individuals on the spectrum have with music. I would kindly ask if you would be able to share this link with your contacts who might be willing to take part. 

The link to the experiment:

Thank you!


Kind regards,

Jeremi Korhonen