Using Instruments to Address Academic Skills | Listen & Learn Music

Music therapy can address multiple goals you may have for your clientele. As I work with many school-age clients, I’m finding that one area I focus on often is academic skills. Singing songs with these skills embedded can be very effective, but I also like to add a kinesthetic touch for sensory input and reinforcement: instruments!

During our academic skills-focused sessions, my clients and I often work on reading, writing, counting, and identifying left and right. It sometimes takes some innovative thinking to get instruments involved! Here are some ways I work on academic skills with my clients during their in-person music therapy sessions.


One of the first steps in learning to read is being able to identify sight words. One way we can work on this is by playing the drum! I know, it doesn’t make much sense at first, but let’s get creative! I like to use a floor tom and two mallets (one for the client and one for me). Prior to the session, I cut up a sticky note into 15 pieces, write a sight word on each piece, and lightly tape it to the head of the floor tom.

During the session, the client and I sing “Play Your Drum With Me”, changing the lyrics “everybody” to the client’s name. In between each verse I will either point to several sight words and have them identify the words or I will say a word and they have to find it and play their mallet on that part of the drum. Not only are they working on their reading skills during this intervention, but they get some artistic freedom by playing the drum!


Did you know that you can fit 52 numbers on the white keys of a full-size keyboard? We love to use dry-erase markers to write numbers on the piano and work on our counting skills! We either write the numbers 1-52 or 0-51 on the keyboard, depending on the client’s preference. Then, let’s play every key to count by 1’s and skip to count by 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s! We can also play a game where I sing a number and you have to find it on the keyboard!

If you wait to write the numbers on the keyboard until during the session, this also provides a good opportunity to work on handwriting skills.

Left and Right

I love “The Right-Left Song” from the Listen & Learn collection. It’s simple, repetitive, and gives so many opportunities for success. If the client is new to the concept of right and left, I adapt it to be with lollipop drums.

I hold the lollipop drums in my hands while the client uses the mallets to play either the left or right drum. Give them additional prompts by holding up the drum that corresponds with the correct direction. As they are able to identify these directions more independently, have your clients dance with shakers from right to left!

There are so many possibilities to work on academic skills in the music therapy setting, and adding instruments gives it an extra special touch! As many students are still doing remote learning for school instruction, it’s even more important to have fun and creative ways to reinforce their academic skills. What are your favorite academic-focused music activities?