Supporting Communication Through Performance: A Qualitative Study of the Effects of Musical Performance on Social Communication

Open Access
Mc Grath, Megan
Area of Honors:
Communication Sciences and Disorders
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Krista Wilkinson, Thesis Supervisor
  • Carol Miller, Honors Advisor
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Performance
  • Arts
  • Special Populations
  • Autism
  • Down Syndrome
  • Gardner
  • Music Therapy
  • Dance Therapy
  • Friendship
Pattern behavior is a characteristic quality of many individuals in special populations (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, 2013; Rinehart, Bradshaw, Brereton, & Tongue, 2002). This is typically accommodated through repetitive activities, and the use of routine and structure in daily or weekly activities in order to create an ideal environment in terms of socialization, comfort, and security. Every morning might involve the same dressing, hygiene and eating routine; every week’s dinners might follow the same menu (Monday is pasta, Tuesday is chicken, etc.). Some individuals with special needs are comforted by these routines and this predictability of experiences day to day. Without structure or routine, such individuals might lash out due to fear, surprise, or discomfort with unexpected situations (Bishop, Richler, Cain, & Lord, 2007; South, Ozonoff, & McMahon, 2005; Cook, D’Cruz, Masconi, Ragozzino, Shrestha, Sweeney, 2013). Therefore, the use of patterns or routines has become an accepted and widely used adaptation to these individual’s activities of daily living. However, the use of performance arts provides an alternative route to addressing this need, satisfying the individual’s desire for routine while promoting an acceptance of variability. Performance arts (such as improvisation, instrumental performance, vocal performance, and dance performance) provide a model for self-expression where a structure and rules are in place, but also allow for individual, unique expression. This model satisfies -- on the surface -- the need for structure and predictable outcomes. However, the model also simultaneously addresses and treats the preference for predictability. Through the use of performance arts in therapy for special populations, a model and structure is put into place, but within such structure there is room for variance and novel creation. This provides an enticing environment for self expression and novel creation, and a safe place to express feelings in a verbal and physical way, appropriate to the specific activity (Corbett, 2014b; Nelson, 2017). Performance also can benefit individuals in terms of allowing for expression of feelings, relating verbal and nonverbal expression of feelings, and teaching appropriate avenues of expression. Therefore, when utilized with individuals with special needs, these activities encourage acceptance of novelty, concerning the behavior of others as well as the individual him or herself. This qualitative study of a small group of individuals explored the behavioral changes individuals might identify in themselves, and the changes others witness in these individuals as well. The goal of this study was to answer the initial question: How does the predictable but various structure of music and improvisation promote comfort with novelty -- specifically willingness to participate, initiation of novel activities, and decreased sensitivity to change -- through performance practice and activities?