One Song, Many Ways to Connect with Special Needs

Ever hear someone humming a tune and the next thing you know it’s stuck in your head for the rest of the day? Music has a flow that humans innately relate to. We can’t help it. We can be focused on writing an article for a magazine, but if there’s music on in the background, we almost involuntarily tap or foot or bob our heads as we stare at the computer screen. Music, especially with a catchy melody and rhythm, create a feeling we all easily connect with on conscience and subconscious level. Once that connection happens, there is a universally human joy in sharing this feeling.

One Song, Many Ways to Connect with Special Needs

As a music instructor specializing in teaching students on the autism spectrum, I use our natural affinity for music to compel responses and social awareness. The rhythm, melody, and lyrics of a song act like an escalator guiding the response to the right level. Once that platform is reached and confidence builds, amazing things happen.  Let me give you an example of how I apply one musical composition to coerce a response in movement, voice and group awareness.

The foundation of this exercise goes way back to the 1950s Bo Diddly tune “Who Do You Love.” The ‘Bo Diddly Beat’ is one of those natural responsive rhythms.  The slight interval after the main beat, “BumPa BumPa Bumm,” allows for a strong “Bamm Boom” response. Get a drum for you and your student and give it a try. No drum? It’s okay to use a desktop, table or shaker instrument.  The beat is hit at each B and P in the progression while the “BumpaBum…” is called out.

Main Beat (5 beats)                      Response Beat (2 beats)

BumPa BumPa Bumm               Bamm Boom

BumPa BumPa Bumm               Bamm Boom

At first, the instructor introduces the pattern and plays both beats, accenting the response beat on the student’s drum to prompt them.  After a few tries, the instructor plays “BumPa BumPa Bumm” with an accented stop. Most students will feel the music interval and fill the rhythm space with the response “Bamm Boom.”

This is just the beginning.  Use the movement of drum beats to cue a verbal response within the narrative of the song.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Sing the lyrics “Who Do You Love?” Prompt the student to respond “MY MOM” and play the “Bamm Boom” beat. It’s the student’s job to call out “MY MOM” over the response beat.

Instructor                                        Student

Main Beat                                       Response Beat

BumPa BumPa Bumm               Bamm Boom

“WHO    DO YOU LOVE”           “MY      MOM”

“WHO    DO YOU LOVE”           “MY      MOM”

I then liven things up with my guitar, add some words about their loved ones and prompt the child to keep their beat.

The verses to the song can be rhythmically spoken, so there are no melodic challenges. Its lyrical theme is universal for kids to relate to. The sing provides a path for the student to call out and express feelings for family members. The singing helps reinforce the drum beat, as “My MOM” has two distinct beats and then a stop. It is not unusual for the instructor to stop and wait, compelling the student to call out their line at right time.

This can concept to allow the students to get involved in the creative process. Ask them about other people or things they love. “Could it be your father or sister?  How about your pet or a toy? What’s your favorite book or cartoon character?” Anything that gets the child motivated.  Let’s say the student says he loves his dog, Barker.  “What do you love about Barker? When he licks your face? Is it because he is warm and fury and has a wet nose?” Right down four ideas and call them out in song.

Instructor & Student                                   Student

He’s so warm and furry                Bamm Boom

and likes to lick my face               Bamm Boom

He’s got a wet black nose            Bamm Boom

and runs all over the place          Bamm Boom

WHO DO YOU LOVE                      BAR       KER

WHO DO YOU LOVE                      BAR       KER

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Even students who nod a response will recognize their personal contribution and be more like to call out their own words about their pet, Barker. If the student is comfortable with the process, make a list of things we love about him and when we sing, “WHO DO YOU LOVE” call out their name, “JOEY” for example.

We can build on this momentum and use the musical process for greater social awareness. The simplicity of beginning and ending a composition together is an exercise in social relation. First, explain the procedure of beginning the song together.

Accenting the ‘4’ is a good cue to begin. With a bit of practice, the teacher and student are connecting as the song begins. Make sure the student knows if we mess up, it’s okay to start again.

In one simple song composition, we accomplished a lot. We provided an opportunity for timed movement, verbal responses, creative input and social integration. So end it on a high note with a fun, “rock concert” good-bye. The singer calls out a “YEAAAAAH!” while the instruments play wildly until a final beat is struck. I find it amazing how my students universally recognize this rise in energy and release it together on their instruments. When the instructor stops, their release subsides often instantaneously. These moments seem like musical dis-function, but actually, create a bond between players as they learn to rise and stop together. So we end with a smile and all feel like rock stars. “YEAAAAAH!”

My first goal is for ASD children to build confidence in knowing they can contribute to music. Music allows them to get comfortable with their own voice, movements, creativity and group participation. The desire to contribute to music is usually already there. The instructor only helps unlock the innate ability by making music fun and rewarding.


This article was featured in Issue 75 – Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive

David Meyers

David Meyers is a music specialist who has written over 100 songs designed specifically for music learning. His unique brand of teaching includes Dave’s Ten Terrific Tunes—songs that often can be played in the first class. David currently provides music lessons for children and young adults of special needs in Westchester and Putnam Counties in New York. David is a member of the Children’s Music Network and has performed at their national convention. You can hear his music and see videos on his website.