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Music and Williams Syndrome

Most individuals with Williams syndrome have an affinity to music.  They are touched by music in ways not usually seen in the general population.  It is quite common for those with Williams syndrome to be reduced to tears by classical music, disturbed by music played in minor chords or moved to dance and laugh by playful and "happy" music. 

The affinity for music in people with Williams syndrome, especially their sense of rhythm, ability to remember lyrics and hearing sensitivity can used to help overcome weaknesses.  Music therapy is often used in the educational setting to help with math skills and other concepts.

Sometimes the natural affinity for music progresses to excellent music ability. Children may benefit from non-traditional (most individuals play by ear) lessons in piano, drums, voice, or guitar.

This section is intended to help educators understand the musical link in Williams syndrome that has been documented through studies, documentaries, and special programs by experts in the fields of Cognitive Neuroscience, Educational Psychology, Developmental and Cell Biology, Special Education, and others.

What does it mean to have an "affinity" towards music? And how might this effect a child's general education?

The topics covered in this section include:

What is an "affinity to music"? 

The definition of the word affinity is: "A natural attraction, liking, or feeling of kinship." This definition fits well the relationship between Williams syndrome and music. People with Williams syndrome talk often about a natural feeling that music is part of their being.

People with Williams syndrome often appear drawn towards music and things musical. For some, music can help overcome obstacles they might not otherwise overcome. For example, some children with Williams syndrome have been known to overcome their acute sensitivity to loud noises in order to join others on a dance floor where music is playing at levels that would otherwise bring them to tears.

The same can sometimes be said for children with Williams syndrome in a classroom. They are often able to stay on task during a "musical" activity, for much longer times than would be possible during non-music activities. This can be an important piece of information for an educator who is working with a Williams child who has a limited attention span.

It is important to note, however, that "affinity" does not equal "ability" (although that is the case in some instances). The musical link with Williams syndrome refers to cognitive, emotional and psychological characteristics. Individuals with Williams syndrome usually enjoy participating in musical activities, whether or not, they show increased musical abilities.

Will a child with WS be musically gifted? 


Individuals with Williams syndrome (as a whole) seem to have a higher rate of musicality, and in some instances musical ability, than the general population. Among those who have increased levels of musicality there are people with Williams syndrome who are musically gifted. But many others who are not. It is the affinity and love of music, rather than musical "giftedness" that appears to be a common trait in individuals with Williams syndrome.

Additionally, recent research suggests that the percentage of individuals with Williams syndrome who have perfect pitch is higher than the percentage among individuals in the general population.

Can the musicality of a child with WS be affected through education?

Yes. Due to the wide range of early childhood delays and medical problems it is possible that many common Williams syndrome traits will only emerge after time. For example, a child with WS who appears to have little interest in music at age three may exhibit a high level of interest and/or ability at age 11.

A child's musicality can potentially be brought out by circumstances, and thus affected by their educational experiences.

Should a child with Williams syndrome be assessed for Music Therapy treatment? 

As a general rule, you will probably want a child with Williams syndrome assessed by a Music therapist. The published link between music and cognition in individuals with Williams syndrome indicates that this assessment is appropriate.

The following questions may help members of an IEP team determine the appropriateness of a music therapy assessment. Note: a "no" response to one or more questions does not necessarily mean that a child is inappropriate for a music therapy assessment. If disagreements or questions arise, a music therapist should be contacted.

  • Can the child be motivated to attempt tasks through the use of music?
  • Can the child by motivated to complete tasks through the use of music?
  • Could the child benefit from the use of additional communication modalities?
  • Does the child initiate interaction with music in the classroom or at home?
  • Does the child retain information conveyed in songs more easily than information conveyed in spoken interchanges?

An assessment for music therapy as a related service should, at minimum, include a review of the child's current IEP, interviews with key IEP team members, and an assessment process/instrument that provides specific data as to whether or not music therapy makes a significant difference in a child's ability to benefit from his or her IEP.

How will Music Therapy benefit a child with WS? 

There is good likelihood that children with WS will benefit from music therapy. Music therapy uses an interactive musical setting to achieve specific educational goals. The affinity toward music of a child with Williams syndrome will often allow them to be more engaged and have a higher retention of success, when difficult tasks are reinforced with music.

However, as with any type of therapy, not all children respond in the same way. For this reason, it is very important to have a thorough Music therapy assessment performed on the child with Williams syndrome. This assessment should be performed by a Board-Certified Music Therapist. It is also helpful when the evaluation includes time with the child in the current classroom. The assessment should take place prior to the IEP meeting.

If Music therapy is deemed appropriate for a child with Williams syndrome, the Music therapist should become a part of the child's IEP team. As with all therapies, whether or not music therapy is appropriate at the time of initial assessment, periodic reassessment is recommended.

Related published articles 

The following articles regarding Williams syndrome deal primarily with the relationship between cognition and music in children with Williams syndrome.

Music, the Brain, and Williams syndrome (2001)

Article transcript (free registration required)

This article appeared in The Scientist magazine and is primarily a discussion of new research into Williams syndrome and general cognitive ability. It also provides a glimpse of the musical affinity of children with Williams syndrome.

To quote: 
"Music encourages something of normalcy and fulfillment," says Don (Morris). Morris speaks of counseling families to use music to instruct and for its calming effect.

    Williams Syndrome and the Brain (1997)

    Article transcript (pdf file)

    by: H. Lenhoff, P Wang, F Greenberg and U. Bellugi 
    This article appeared in Scientific American magazine, This is an excellent explanation of Williams Syndrome and a summary of research at the time.

      Music Lights A Fire (1997)

      Article transcript

      by: David Scheiber, St. Petersburg Times 
      This article discusses the musicality and passion for music displayed by campers at the WSA's Music and Arts Camp.

        Different Minds (1991)

        Article transcript

        by: Robert Finn 
        This article appeared in Discover Magazine and presents an interesting look at the beginning research into Williams syndrome. Note: This article was written prior to the discovery of the actual genetic problem, and prior to much of the music research. However, it outlines specifically some of the educational obstacles observed when trying to teach children with Williams syndrome.

          Related national broadcasts 

          The following programs regarding Williams syndrome were broadcast nationally. Links are provided to transcripts where available.

          Growing up Different (Friendly Genes segment - 2001)

          Online video and transcript

          This PBS television broadcast appeared as a Scientific American Frontiers special hosted by Alan Alda. The broadcast also featured remarks by Dr. Ursula Bellugi, Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute.

            Gray Matters: Music and the Brain (1998)

            Program transcript

            This radio broadcast appeared on National Public Radio and was hosted by Mandy Patinkin. (Note: Only a segment of the broadcast referred to Williams syndrome.)

            To quote: 
            'A child with William's syndrome once said, "Music is my favorite way of thinking..." As we've heard in this past hour, music has become a favorite way of thinking for an expanding group of neuroscientists.'

              A Very Special Brain (1997/1998)

              Copies available by request from the WSA

              CBS 60 Minutes segment on Williams syndrome. This Peabody Award winning segment aired in both October 1997 and July 1998.

                Additional articles/resources 

                There are dozens of reference articles and/or videos relating Williams syndrome and music that have been printed over the past several years. Not all are presented here because they do not specifically reference general education through music. However, they are important in emphasizing the distinct and overwhelming connection between music and Williams syndrome.