Finding a Framework for Musical Development in Children with Disabilities

Sounds of Intent logoResearch has shown that music education is beneficial for young people, both with and without disabilities. But in 2000, when Adam Ockelford and Graham Welch looked for data on how children with severe and profound learning disabilities developed musically, they were surprised at the lack of research and understanding of the topic. This led Ockelford, Welch, and some colleagues in the United Kingdom to begin their own research project that today is Sounds of Intent.

Ockelford says that he and Welch assembled a group of teachers and music therapists from across the UK, with the goal of creating a framework for how students with severe and profound disabilities developed musically. Over five years, the team observed each other’s work in the classroom, viewed videos of music educators working with students with disabilities, and discussed their observations. Six stages of musical development emerged from the research:

  • Level 1, Confusion and Chaos: Children have no awareness of sound.
  • Level 2, Awareness and Intentionality: Children have an emerging awareness of sound and a sense of cause and effect. They take in sound and react to different kinds of sound in an emotional way.
  • Level 3, Relationships, Repetition, Regularity: All about patterns and predictability, this is when children understand a regular beat and clap a time pattern.
  • Level 4, Notes Forming Clusters: Children have an evolving perception of groups of sounds, or “chunks,” and are putting them together to make their own songs.
  • Level 5, Deeper Structural Links: This stage includes a growing recognition of whole pieces, and of the frameworks of pitch and perceived time that lie behind them; children perform and sing in time and tune in a simple way.
  • Level 6, Mature Musical Expression: At this level, children get the hang of music as a social and communicative feeling.

According to Ockelford, identification of these levels allowed the research team to build the first Sounds of Intent framework. Across the six levels on the framework, there are three ways children can engage musically: reactive, proactive, and interactive. Altogether, the framework provides 18 cells on how music can be made.

“Sounds of Intent is really all about resources and examples for teachers,” says Ockelford, adding that the website has hundreds of examples and videos for using the framework in classrooms. The website includes an online recording and assessment tool with hundreds of different steps music educators or parents can use to record a child’s musical development. Ockelford notes that the need for such an assessment tool was great, since many other music education assessments are too broad brush for children with severe and profound learning disabilities.

The Sounds of Intent team is currently working on applying the framework to children in their early years. Their initial findings show that the framework’s levels seem to be common to all children, both with and without disabilities. Ockelford hails this as “…amazing, to have a fully inclusive framework for musical development.”

Ockelford says there are two key take-away messages from the Sounds of Intent research. First, that all children are musical, regardless of their ability or disability. Second, that how a child develops musically has a genetic element, but also depends largely on how much experience and exposure to music a child receives in the early years.

Ockelford and Welch will be presenting an interactive session about Sounds of Intent at the 2015 Intersections: Arts and Special Education conference. They will co-present the session with American music and special education teacher Don DeVito, and offer attendees the opportunity to try the online Sounds of Intent resources for themselves. To register for Intersections, visit the conference website.

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