Music Therapy


    Interview by Shanti Kurada

    Children with autism seem to respond to music differently.  They seem to have an innate sense of rhythm, often greeting a familiar tune like an old friend.  Some of them enjoy it with their whole bodies, smiling, swaying to the beat.  Music can be an outlet for all of the emotional ups and downs that they go through.  It can be a refuge, the one place where they can be in control.

    When I spoke to Susan Rancer about her students, I was surprised to learn that many of them are autistic.  I was even more intrigued by the concept of ‘perfect pitch’, the ability to play a song, purely from memory, with no formal instruction.  If one can find a way to get beyond the fog of behaviors and communication challenges, these children are incredibly talented.  The following is an interview regarding her experiences teaching children on the spectrum:


    SK: What is Music Therapy?


    SR: A music therapist is different from a music teacher.  A music therapist is trained to work with challenging or unexpected behaviors, to accommodate good days and bad days.  But most importantly, a music teacher requires students to work at her level, whereas a music therapist works at the student’s level.


    SK: How do you begin working with a student?


    SR: I start by first exposing them to different instruments.  I do give them some instruction, but I also offer some ‘free play’ time, when they can choose an instrument and play it.


    Piano is the best instrument to begin with because it is linear and can be taught easier with your hands in front of you. Piano involves developing hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, motor planning, visual tracking and attention span. Those are usually goals on the IEP so this helps children by carrying over to educational goals. This way handwriting and reading also improve in the classroom.


    Later, we might move on to other instruments depending on the student’s interest and skills.


    SK: Whom do you teach?


    SR: I teach children and adults with special needs.  That includes Learning Disabilities, Autism, ADD, ADHD, Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, and other conditions.


    SK: How many of your students have autism?


    SR: 35 out of my 50 students have autism.  Yes, that’s a whopping 65%.  These kids are very talented.


    SK: Is there anything specific to autistic children that you have noticed, that makes them musically inclined?


    SR: Many of these kids have perfect pitch.  It is like having a photographic memory of sound.  It takes parents a long time to find this out because the behaviors get in the way.  Also it takes a trained ear to detect if the child has perfect pitch or not.


    SK: Can you explain a bit more about perfect pitch?


    SR: Yes.  Perfect pitch – also known as absolute pitch – is defined as the ability to identify the pitch of a musical tone by name, without an external reference (such as written music).  People with perfect pitch can listen to a song, and then play it, without even being able to read the music.


    Perfect pitch is a spectrum.  Some people can play an entire song after hearing it.  Some can play the same song on different instruments.  Others can reproduce only specific notes, within a given range.  It is very important to understand if the student has perfect pitch, and if so, in what specific way.


    SK: Why is that important?


    SR: People with perfect pitch learn and process information differently.  They are often auditory learners.  If taught using traditional methods, they will be unmotivated and lose interest quickly.  If they are taught appropriately, they may show amazing abilities.


    Sometimes a child will “know” the music in his head but is unable to play it.  His auditory memory competes with secondary learning mechanisms like visual cues, sheet music, finger instruction, etc.  They are unable to integrate their auditory memory with the additional visual and physical cues.


    Perfect pitch can create problems.  If the student learns only auditory, he may ignore the note-reading or finger instruction part of the lesson.  The teacher may feel that his instruction is being ignored or the student ‘doesn’t get it’.


    SK: How can you tell if the child has some degree of perfect pitch?


    SR: There are many traits and characteristics these children exhibit, but just to give you a few:

    gets annoyed when others sing along to a song, especially in confined places like cars

    background noises that others might easily ignore are heard and noted

    may be unable to read music, or even when able, is not inclined to use the sheet music

    displays an apparent lack of motivation in music lessons despite strong aptitude

    is “addicted” to music

    is tuned to a certain key, and plays or sings every piece in that key


    SK: So, how do you alter your teaching methods to suit these children’s needs?


    SR: I begin by teaching all students as though they are auditory learners.  I do this until I can establish if they have perfect pitch or not.  I never play a new piece of music until they have mastered the piece we are working on.  I use visual cues like pointing so they can connect their auditory processing of a note to its position on the page.  I might sing a command to the student rather than saying it, so he comprehends better.


    In the beginning, I try to strengthen their auditory skill by “playing by ear” without sheet music.  We play rhythm games on different percussion instruments.  I do not integrate the audio with visual skills until visual skills are concrete.  Once they begin to develop visual skills, I strengthen them using various activities.


    SK: What has your experience been overall, teaching music to children with autism?


    SR: It has been anything but ordinary.  Many of these children show frustration, inattentiveness, they may ignore instructions or have tantrums.  I believe many of them do process music auditory and can replay a song in their heads perfectly.  It takes practice and work to get them to display this skill.  When they do display it, it gives them tremendous confidence and self esteem.  Music can become a non-verbal form of expression to them.


    SK: How has this experience altered you, as a teacher and an individual?


    SR: My goal is to focus on the ability rather than the disability. By searching for the innate gifts of the students, hidden and unexpected talents are often discovered. It is very rewarding –watching these children bloom.


    In many cases, people have given up on some of these children.  They have failed at assessment tests at school, they have been unable to meet their IEP goals.  They have been labeled ‘low functioning’ due to extreme behaviors.  When I discover that they have this amazing ability to hear and process a song purely from memory, and I let the parents know, they often have a hard time believing it.  It is like giving them the most unexpected gift.



    Susan Rancer is a registered music therapist in Piedmont, California who has been in practice for more than 35 years. Her specialties are teaching piano, guitar and violin to special needs students, although she also engages them in music therapy activities if unable to learn an instrument.

    Graduating from Eastern New Mexico University with a bachelor’s degree in music therapy in 1974, she now teaches 50 special needs clients, of which 35 have autism, and 30 have perfect pitch, including a few savants. In addition to teaching music, Susan also serves as music director for a local Jewish preschool and synagogue.  She is the author of ‘Perfect Pitch Relative Pitch’ and has co-authored sections of the book ‘Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant’, with Dr, Darold A. Treffert, an internationally recognized expert on savant syndrome.


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