I’m really getting into the  swing of things here at my job as Interim Professor of Music Therapy at University of Miami (UM).

I love being about to share what I’ve learned in my eight years of working with children with special needs in the clinical setting and also what I learned during my master’s thesis research about children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Today I want to share a little background on my thesis research and how it may benefit you as a therapist, parent, caregiver, or health professional.

The Idea

I have always had an interest in working with children with ASD. The majority of the children that I work with in my private practice are on the autism spectrum and I have always wondered – why is it they are responsive during music therapy? What is it about the music that is interesting them and maintaining their attention?

The Study

After consultation with my thesis advisors, I decided to focus on autism and joint attention (one of the earliest manifestations & most characteristics features of the social deficits in ASD). The purpose of my study was to see what kind of music (simple music or complex music) would be most effective in eliciting joint attention in children with ASD. Thirty children with ASD participated in the study.

Fifteen of the participants were diagnosed with severe ASD and 15 were diagnosed with mild/moderate ASD. Each participant took part in six, 10-minute individual music conditions (3 simple & 3 complex) over a 3-week period. Each condition was designed to elicit responses to joint attention.

The Music

The simple music condition consisted of a simple melody and simple musical accompaniment on keyboard. The simple melody was sung on the beat with no syncopation, had a range of no more than an octave, and moved in mostly stepwise motion with no chromatic notes. The simple accompaniment consisted of blocked chords on keyboard once every two beats. Harmonically, the simple accompaniment style used a minimum number of chord changes, typically I, IV, and V.

The complex music condition was defined as a musical intervention with a complex melody and complex musical accompaniment on keyboard. The complex melody was sung with syncopation or dotted rhythms. The complex accompaniment used the following keyboard techniques: auto accompaniment with various musical styles (i.e., boogie or salsa); an introduction pattern; and an ‘outro’ pattern as a cadence at the end of the song. Harmonically, the complex accompaniment style used more chords outside the basic I, IV, V structure. Dominant chords, 9th chords, and minor chords were added.

The musical activities used in the study were: rocking the ocean drum, playing the resonator bells, frog activity, ball activity, book and song, and playing gathering drum. The same music activities were used in both the simple music condition and complex music condition, the only difference being the music presentation style.


Results indicated a statistically significant interaction between music modality (simple or complex) and functioning level (severe or mild/moderate). This means, the effect of simple versus complex music was dependent on functioning level. Specifically, the simple music condition was more effective in eliciting joint attention for children diagnosed with severe ASD, whereas the complex music condition was more effective in eliciting joint attention for children diagnosed with mild/moderate ASD.

The Takeaway

The results of the present study indicate that for children in the severe range of functioning, music that is simple, with clear and predictable patterns, may be most effective in eliciting responses to bids for joint attention. On the contrary, for children in the mild/moderate range of functioning, music that is more complex and variable may be most effective in eliciting responses to bids for joint attention. These results demonstrate that careful manipulation of specific musical elements can help provide the optimal conditions for facilitating joint attention with children with ASD.

I can tell you that I put these findings into practice immediately and began seeing results. For children toward the severe end of the spectrum, I will often put down my guitar and simply sing a cappella. I keep my songs simple and repetitive. For children toward the mild/moderate end of the spectrum I will often add an auto accompaniment from the keyboard or omnichord to add variety and novelty.

Read more!

There is much more information in my thesis than can be summed up in a few paragraphs. If you are interested in learning more about joint attention and autism, or why music is effective in eliciting joint attention, please read my thesis!

You can find it here:
Kalas (2010) Joint attention responses of children with autism spectrum disorder to simple versus complex music. Journal of Music Therapy 49(4), 430-452.

Or you can click here:
Entire master’s thesis
*(all 122 pages! Note that the first page is intentionally left blank)