The Importance of Pictures in Music Therapy

10 February 2014

Monday, Feb 10, 2014

Written by Debi Kret, MM, MT-BC, NMT

Debi Kret, MM, MT-BC, NMT has been a music therapist since 1996 and received her Master’s degree in Music Therapy from Arizona State University in 2010. Debi has extensive experience working with people of all ages with neurologic processing disorders and is the author of Mind-Full Music: A Multi-Sensory Approach to Support Neurologic Development in Early Childhood”. She is currently serving as the president of the Arizona Music Therapy Association and is partner in Mind-Full Music Therapy Services, LLC, in Phoenix, AZ.

A huge thank you to, Debi, for her admirable contributions to the music therapy profession and also for her encouraging insight into how music therapists can creatively integrate more visuals into their work!



Auditory learners hear things and are able to understand, cognitively process and then respond to the auditory stimulus. But in the special education setting, most children have sensory processing disorders, so they may take longer to comprehend and process auditory cues. This is especially true for individuals on the autism spectrum.

In her 1996 book Thinking in Pictures Temple Grandin, an adult with autism, wrote the following: “I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.” You can find a helpful illustration of this in the movie Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes.

As I began my music therapy career in special education, it was important to me to connect with the children that I was serving, and after reading the Temple Grandin book, I began to develop ways to incorporate visuals in my sessions. The school district provided Boardmaker® software by Mayer Johnson for use with speech devices for non-verbal kids, but it also became an important tool for verbal children that had auditory processing difficulties. I started by making a schedule defining the structure of the music therapy group. This provided a clear measurement of time and what was going to happen next. (I go into specific detail about this in my book Mind-Full Music: A Multi-Sensory Approach to Support Neurologic Development in Early Childhood, available for sale on my website. I will also be presenting “A Multi-sensory Approach for Structuring Music Therapy Groups in Special Education” at the WRAMTA conference in March.)

While the Boardmaker® program was very helpful, it lacked an element of fun I felt was needed when illustrating songs that I wanted to teach the kids. Now, while I am artistic, I am not very good at drawing, but one day while I was home sick and bored, I started looking at some of my children’s books and using the pictures as models for some of my own artwork. The first song that I illustrated was “Slippery Fish”. This is not an epic work of art by any means, but the kids liked it. So I began to do more songs with simple illustrations and the process grew from there.

During the first few weeks of February, many classrooms are preparing for Valentine’s Day. Kids are learning to make heart shapes and talking about love and relationships with family and friends. So as I was searching for ideas on the internet one day, I found a cute idea for a pre-school song set to the melody of “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley. I was trying to draw pictures that went with the version I had found, but the concepts were very abstract. For example, one of the lines said, “You’re the apple of my eye.” While I could draw an eye with an apple in it, explaining what it meant was difficult. So I did what I often do and changed the entire song to use very concrete ideas that were easily represented. You can find my pictures for this song by clicking on FREE STUFF here or on the menu above. As you can see, the illustrations are very simple and even child-like. I have done this activity with many school age groups and everyone has responded positively. Using these picture cards on my felt board enables everyone to sing along. I tried it last year in one of my nursing home groups and they loved it! The adults knew the melody and even those with visual impairments could follow along and sing.

Do you use visuals during your music therapy sessions? Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for visiting Have a musical day!



Written by Debi Kret, MM, MT-BC, NMT


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