From its inception in the early 1960's, Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy has become a significant presence in the music therapy world, with hundreds of certified practitioners and several training/research centers worldwide. Researchers work closely with therapists in analyzing music therapy sessions to better understand the processes that make this work effective.

The research staff at our Center has pioneered the development and application of research methods to study creative and developmental processes in music therapy. This work has generated numerous scholarly publications and clinical training videotapes. Along with senior clinicians, doctoral and master's students in both the music therapy and applied psychology programs at NYU have undertaken a wide range of research projects based on the study of archived video recordings of clinical sessions.

Areas of Study

The overriding focus of research currently being undertaken at the Nordoff-Robbins Center is the examination of interdisciplinary collaboration as it is applied in treatment. The clinical areas include a variety of people in need including stroke survivors and children with cochlear implants. Another research priority is our ongoing examination of how music therapy improves the communication and social skills of children on the autism spectrum.

Efficacy of treatment in improving communication and social interaction skills in children with autism spectrum disorders

Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins are recognized in the field of music therapy as pioneers in using improvisation as a clinical intervention (Nordoff and Robbins 2007). Less well-known is that they maintained a scientist-practitioner model, focusing on measuring gains occurring in sessions as well as innovative clinical techniques. Broadly speaking, they focused on the question “How are the therapist and client engaged in music making?” In their holistic case studies they asked and found a variety of answers to the question “How does increased musical engagement lead to overall improvement in the child’s life?” These early questions and findings of Nordoff and Robbins continue to be relevant for our current research at the Center.

Empirical evidence from years of clinical observation indicates that increased engagement in the music making process leads to improvements in flexibility, responsiveness, attention, awareness, and organization; all of which are essential to improving social interaction and communication. The Music Engagement Scale (MES) is designed to be an accurate and efficient measure of the length and quality of clients’ engagement in music making during therapy sessions. A sensitive engagement measure will also allow for evaluating therapeutic effectiveness across different schools/approaches to music therapy. Increased engagement, regardless of approach (e.g., Nordoff-Robbins, Analytic, Benenzon, behavioral) can serve as “common denominator” of therapeutic quality and effectiveness across the field.

To build on the Nordoff-Robbins clinical and research tradition, and to address gaps in the current study under discussion, we are working to:

  1. Effectively measure engagement with music-making in Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy with the development of the MES
  2. Answer the question of what gains in engagement with music making typically occur in effective improvisational music therapy
  3. Identify what conditions promote increased engagement
  4. Identify improvements in function and quality of life that are associated with increased engagement with music making in improvisational music therapy

Collaborative Studies

Therapeutic Preschool in Southeast Bronx
In addition to studying the effects of individual music therapy, efficacy of the intervention in group work with children on the Spectrum is being studied. Field data was collected at “These our Treasures” (TOTS), a therapeutic preschool in the southeast Bronx with a long-standing and highly regarded program of Nordoff-Robbins music therapy. Participants were 36 children, 2 through 5 years of age, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities. A lagged cohort control group design was employed, in which approximately half the children received music therapy in the fall, and half in the spring. The Vineland -II was administered to both the parents and the teachers of children in the study at the beginning, middle and end of the academic year. In addition music therapy sessions were videotaped at the beginning, middle and end of the each semester. Preliminary findings indicate greater improvements over the fall semester for the experimental group than for control group in expressive communication and receptive communication sub domains of Vineland. In addition to the Vineland, an instrument developed at the Center by an interdisciplinary team of music therapists and applied psychologists over a two year span was utilized to measure children’s communication and social interaction behaviors as observed during music therapy sessions. Correlations between this scale, the Music Therapy Communication and Social Interaction Scale (MTCSI) and the Vineland-II suggest that observed changes in music therapy generalize to other environments.

NYU Langone Medical Center
- Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine
According to statistics, approximately 795,000 cases of stroke occur annually in the United States. More than a third of stroke survivors suffer from negative mood disorders and a reduced sense of well-being, which are negative predictors of post-stroke motor recovery. The Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy and the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine has initiated a pilot study, aiming to discover if a collaborative interdisciplinary music therapy/occupational therapy intervention can enhance upper limb functioning as well as psychological and social well-being for patients post-stroke. This intervention, named Music Therapy/Upper Limb Therapy - Integrated (MULT-I) involves a team of two Nordoff-Robbins music therapists and an occupational therapist from the Motor Recovery Laboratory at the Rusk Institute. Preliminary results have shown that this joint approach not only improved the subjects' upper limb functioning, but also self-awareness and expression through music, and peer support. This research is being funded in part by the American Music Therapy Associations’ Arthur Flagler Fultz award.

Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders
- Speech therapy
Researchers from NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders are beginning an analysis of archived video recordings of entire courses of therapy to evaluate the effectiveness of music therapy in developing speech and communication skills. Populations that are included in this study are stroke rehabilitation patients and children with autism spectrum disorders who have speech and communication disorders. This is a first step in developing a collaborative intervention combining speech and music therapy.

Instrument Development

Music Therapy Communication and Social Interaction Scale
The Music Therapy Communication and Social Interaction scale (MTCSI-Hummel-Rossi et al., 2008) was developed by our interdisciplinary team of music therapists and applied psychologists over the past two academic years to measure children's communication and social interaction behaviors as observed during music therapy sessions. Sessions are videotaped and coded in one-minute intervals. Coded behaviors include instrument use, vocalization, movement, gesture, eye contact, facial expression, parallel play, joint attention, turn-taking, and other indicators of a child's response to or initiation of communication and interaction. The MTCSI has attained high inter-rater agreement among trained observers and strong support for its content validity. It is intended to be used by specialists in child development across various disciplines, including creative arts therapists, psychologists, educators, and speech, occupational, and physical therapists.

Volunteer Research Assistantships
Volunteer research assistantships offer an invaluable opportunity for involvement in multiple facets of music therapy research. Research assistants participate in filming sessions, coding session videotapes using various observation instruments, administering developmental questionnaires to parents/caregivers of children at different points in the course of therapy, data entry and analysis, and writing articles and grant proposals. Hours are flexible. We hope you will be interested in pursuing a research assistantship here. For more information contact us at