'What Can Music Do?' Rethinking Autism Through Music Therapy

Half a century ago in England, the Philadelphia-born musician Paul Nordoff—a conservatory-trained pianist who’d composed music for Martha Graham ballets and taught at Bard College—sat down to play for an unlikely audience: a little boy named Johnny who was thought to be unreachable. Apparently cut off from the world by what today we would call autism spectrum disorder, Johnny lived at the Sunfield School, a residence for children with special learning and behavioral needs, where his teachers struggled to connect with him. He didn’t speak, respond when addressed, show any interest in communicating with other people, or express emotion of any kind—except, his caretakers said, for when he was in bed at night and could sometimes be heard making whimpering sounds. But when Nordoff began to play—first the pleasant, carefree tones of the dreamlike pentatonic scale, and then, eventually, more plaintive, dissonant sounds, something changed. Nordoff improvised, altering his tempo to reflect the boy’s movements around the room—and Johnny noticed that when he shifted what he was doing, the music changed to match. Suddenly, the pair were communicating with each other in a dialogue through...READ MORE

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