Choosing Musical Instruments For Children With Special Needs

By Sharlene Habermeyer, MA

Brandon Habermeyer special needs

Sharlene Habermeyer’s son Brandon overcame many challenges with the help of music.

Children experiencing special needs such as physical, emotional or intellectual challenges respond to music and can play music, but one important question remains. What instruments are best for these children and why? A few years ago, I read an article in Music Educators Journal discussing this very topic and giving suggestions. Here is a brief synopsis of that article and which instruments they suggest for children with specific physical and learning challenges, as well as which instruments might be more difficult for them to play.

Physical Disabilities

  • Strings: The violin, viola, cello, and bass are all good for children with physical challenges and are particularly well suited for children where breathing is difficult, such as with cystic fibrosis.
  • Woodwinds: The bass clarinet and the saxophone work well for children with various physical disabilities because the neck strap and bass clarinet pin help support the instrument.
  • Brass: The French horn is a great instrument because the child can partially support the instrument on one leg.
  • Percussion: These instruments are particularly good for children with cystic fibrosis, nasal irregularities or severe asthma.

Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Strings: The violin or viola work well because the child can feel the vibrations of the instrument through the jawbone.
  • Woodwinds: Clarinet and saxophone are also great instruments because children can feel the vibrations through their teeth on top of the mouthpiece.
  • Brass: These instruments are difficult for children who are deaf or hard of hearing because they cannot hear the right overtones.
  • Percussion: Bass drum is a great instrument for children with hearing impairments. They can feel the vibrations by standing on a wooden floor with shoes removed or playing with their left hand on the drum head. They can also lean against the drum and feel vibrations while watching the director.

Gross Motor Skill Impairments

  • Strings: The cello or bass is a good choice for children having difficulty with gross motor skills because there is room to maneuver uncoordinated fingers.
  • Brass: The trombone is a good instrument because children can coordinate the slide on the trombone more easily than valves (such as on wind instruments) and only two working fingers are required.
  • Percussion: Mallet percussion instruments can be challenging for children with gross motor disabilities. They require shifting back and forth between diatonic and chromatic bars and playing all bars in the center, which can cause frustration.

Fine Motor Skills Impairments

  • Woodwinds: These instruments are difficult for children with fine motor control problems.

Speech Impairments

  • Woodwinds: These instruments may be difficult for children with speech problems because they may have difficulty coordinating their tongue.

Learning or Cognitive Impairments

  • Brass: The brass family of instruments is a good choice for children with learning difficulties because the player does not use as many fingers as when playing wind instruments.
  • Percussion: Mallets can be difficult for children with visual tracking problems (visual motor) because they need to see the music and look for the correct bar to strike. It is hard for them to read, then look, then hit, then read, and so on. A child with processing delays will have difficulty playing the drums in good time.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD/ADD)

  • Strings: The string bass is a good choice for children with ADHD/ADD because the child can stand while playing and it allows him or her to move, which helps with his or her ability to focus.
  • Woodwinds: The saxophone is a good choice because it allows the child to stand up as much as possible.
  • Percussion: Mallet instruments allow students with ADHD/ADD some freedom to stand and move.

Good Music Brighter ChildrenDespite challenges, children with various disabilities can and do learn to play musical instruments and can be involved in school music programs. Music teacher Stephen Zdzinski, in his article “Instrumental Music for Special Learners,” states, “Instrumental music teachers can successfully teach learners with a variety of disabilities to play band and orchestral instruments by making minor modifications to traditional instrumental teaching techniques and by employing techniques used primarily in special education.”

SharleneSharlene Habermeyer, MA, has spent more than 25 years researching the impact of music on the brain development of young children. She is the mother of five, and her third son, Brandon, struggled with speech and language delays, auditory processing, visual motor, visual perception, sensory motor and attention deficit disorder. The above is excerpted with permission from her book “Good Music Brighter Children, which she re-published in 2014. Visit her online at

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  1. What about a trumpet? I play the flute and I think any instrument with lots of keys (woodwinds) might be intimidating to a kid with ADHD and not a lot of confidence. A trumpet is loud, it only has three valves, and the trumpet players stand up often in the community bands and churches I’ve played in.

  2. Hey! I have severe ADHD and I’m 15, I really wish to learn how to play the piano it’s my dream to be in the music industry, however I have a painfully hard time with it, and it usually ends in failure and frustration. I also have horrible memory problems, is learning it even worth it? Short term memory loss and ADD don’t mix well. I can barely pass in school.

    • Hi, Matt. My suggestion is that you look for a music teacher who has experience working with students who have ADHD. It may be that there are techniques that will help. Also, it is possible that sticking with piano practice could actually help with your short-term memory.

  3. Have you ever considered mirrored versions of instruments for those who cannot play in the normal orientation? For example a mirrored trumpet for those who cannot push valves with the right hand (instead of having them use the left hand for the valves on a normal trumpet)?

  4. I teach band and have a beginning student who has dwarfism. She is trying to play clarinet, but having trouble reaching the keys enough to cover the holes. She tried trumpet but did not like it much. Any thoughts?

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