Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | January 13, 2013

The Music and Me: an autistic girl’s experiences with music, part 1

Music has always had a very special place in my world. Music is calming, friendly, amazing. It doesn’t judge when I can’t talk. It is beautiful and caring, and raw wonder. Music can calm my brain in the middle of a meltdown. It can get me up after a long day. It can make me laugh and make me cry. I’ve always had music in my life and couldn’t even begin to put all of it into one post. So rather than try, I wanted to simply share  my story, and my relationship with music in several smaller parts, starting with the first music I ever appreciated. I know that music is a super important part of many people’s lives, autistic or not, and that some people have had major success with using music as part of therapies. For me, music was definitely an incredibly important part of helping me learn to self-regulate, and how to function.

When my mother was pregnant with me, she claimed that if I was kicking, I would stop when she played a certain song. When I was born, I wasn’t much of a crier, but if I started to get fussy, she could turn on the song, and I would relax, and stop fussing. When I got older, and started having meltdowns, she could turn on the song, and it would help me relax and get out of the meltdown faster. As I got older, if I was unhappy or agitated, I could turn on the song, and I would relax. Even now, it helps me concentrate, it helps me think, it keeps me calm. It’s amazing the power of one single piece of music on my brain. I don’t understand why, but it has a wonderous effect. It’s amazing my mother didn’t just keep that piece of music on all the time. It might have lost its effect if she had, though. This piece of music is Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. (And now that you’re thinking about it, I have, I hope, successfully embedded her youtube video below, so you can now hit “play” and listen to it, as you read the rest of this post if you so choose.)

Ironically, this is not my favorite piece of music. Not intellectually, anyway. Read on for that. But this piece of music holds a very special place in my world, because it’s more than music for me. This isn’t to say that I don’t really enjoy Enya – I do. I just wouldn’t classify her as my “favorite music”.

My mother’s mother was a very successful pianist before she got very sick. Though she recovered, she never regained her full musical abilities. However when she would play with me as a toddler, sometimes she would sit with me at the piano. This was my first introduction to making music. I loved it, and from the moment I was able to express it to my parents, I begged for piano lessons.

My parents listened to a lot of music, mostly folk (Peter, Paul, and Mary was a household favorite, Simon and Garfunkel were also popular), and what my generation thinks of as “oldies” – The Beatles, The Beach Boys, etc. They rarely listened to anything purely instrumental. For them, music was about the words and the message. I enjoyed it, but I sure didn’t understand why my parents loved it so much.

When I was nearly 6 years old, just about to start kindergarten, my parents bought me a radio alarm clock. They told me that now I was going to “big girl” school, I was going to have “big girl” responsibilities, and it was now my job to wake up and get up in the morning so I wouldn’t be late for school. They set the radio to the oldies station, and showed me how to set the alarm and make sure that it was turned on. That night, I figured out how to change the station using the dial. I figured out how to move so that I didn’t listen to the awful static. And I discovered the classical music channel. I loved listening to the pure music. No words, just music. I had never heard anything so beautiful, and at the tender age of 5, I discovered classical music.

The next day, my parents helped me set my alarm again. They noticed that the channel had changed, so they helped me “fix” it and put it back on the Oldies station. I waited until they were gone, and then changed it back to classical. I listened to it until I fell asleep, and then again as I woke up. For about 2 weeks, this routine happened, with my parents resetting my radio, and me setting it back, and then they gave up. I listened to the same classical music radio station for the next 13 years. Every weekday morning that I was at home, I would wake up to the same announcer, a wonderful woman whose voice I love to hear, and when I am near a computer during her program now, even though I live far away, I tune in online. I learned about the great classical composers. I fell in love with Mozart’s music, because it was so simple, but so complex at the same time. I devoured anything by Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms. Instrumental classical music became my favorite thing. I adored everything I heard, from solo piano to great symphonies. It was a revelation, to me, this beautiful, wonderful music that happened without words. So much beauty, so much pure joy, and I loved it all. You didn’t need words to spread this music. The music itself was enough, and words would have ruined it. And I still listen to almost exclusively classical music today. I still love it, and I still find the most joy in music without words.

Intellectually, looking back and knowing about my autism, it doesn’t surprise me that my favorite music was music that didn’t have words. To me, the words in my parents’ music were just an extra thing that required effort to hear and to process. I didn’t need those to enjoy the message and the glory of the music. In fact, I think that was perhaps the biggest draw to classical music, initially, though I don’t know. I stopped at the station, because it sounded pretty, and it was love at first note, if you will. That night, as a young 5-year-old when I was fiddling with my new radio alarm clock, changed my life. It opened up a whole new world of music to me, one which shaped my interests, passions, and development.

To Be Continued…


  1. I love classical music. The ironic twist is that I find it hard not to write down words when listening to it so I write poetry while listening to music. Beethoven is beyond genius. Sometimes I find that classical music is almost more intense for me that music with words because it draws words out of me. Stories I suppose. But I love that you kept switching it back to classical. Music is a huge part of my day. Whether its at work or at home, I always want it close just in case I need something to escape to and a book is not nearby 🙂

    • 🙂 Thanks for the comment. Yes, Beethoven is genius. I have been known to blast Beethoven Symphonies from my car on occasion… Sometimes it draws words out of me (this post, actually, though it has been brewing since I began my blog over a year ago, actually got written because I was listening to gorgeous classical music, and thought “why don’t I write a post, it’s been a little while since my last one”) – most of the time, though, it just allows me to “be”.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I love music too and often joke that if it were out of my life I’d feel like I’d lost a limb. Orinoco Flow is great, I used to listen to Enya as a kid too, When I want to unwind I play ‘Miss Clare Remembers” on the piano :).

  3. This is a fascinating look at the way music can affect our human psychology. I shall await Part 2 with some impatience. Thank you so much..

  4. Reblogged this on Jesse Talks Back and commented:
    My autistic son has shown that music often works for him as well, now if I can help him start enjoying writing! 🙂

  5. interesting, we have been thinking of starting Charlie in piano lessons for lots of reasons. But, his interest in doing it comes and goes and I’m not sure yet if that is because his interest comes and goes or because his anxiety about the unknown of it comes and goes. I know you share his difficulty with handwriting, I have been wondering if piano would be frustating to him because of his fine motor troubles or if it might help or if it was more like keyboarding and entirely different. Anyway, I thought of you this morning as I went to find Charlie b/c he was taking so long getting ready (which happens everyday 🙂 and he showed me he had noticed my basket of folded laundry to be put away and had organized it in rainbow order to “make it easier for me”

    • Aww, that’s adorable. For me, it was all about finding the right piano teacher. Check your email, I’m going to send you a piece of writing that I can’t share publicly for privacy reasons. Handwriting and piano never really interacted much for me… playing the piano was totally different – I’m not sure if it helped me with typing – I can only assume it did, because my hands are very very good at typing different patterns. I type by “feel”, and I don’t type by the letter, I type by the word, similarly to how a musician might play a measure of music. (Or at least, similarly to how I play the piano – not one note at a time, but whole sequences that make up a smaller bit of a bigger piece, like words making up an essay).

      And I loved the laundry organization story!

  6. I enjoy your ideas about music without words. I was raised on Oldies, and I tend to think in song lyrics. I like repeating the same song over and over, which maybe gives me more processing time for the words and whatever message I am trying to reveal or integrate from the music. When you listen to classical music, do you repeat the same performances, or can you listen to the classical music station without interruption?

  7. Lovely to read about your experiences and connection to music. As a NT music has been vital to my existence. So when my little asd boy did not respond at all to music, I was very disappointed. However that has all changed in the last 6 months and I am overjoyed that his interest in music has been sparked. He is only just becoming increasingly verbal and more interested in a range of things but during the September holidays last year he began playing with the iPod/speaker set up I have in the kitchen. He explored this several times a day, pressing different buttons and getting different results – radio, music, loud, soft etc. after a couple of days I noticed that he kept going back to a few particular tracks and playing them again and again. Three pieces in particular – he absolutely loves: strauss’s Blue Danube, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo & Cristina Branco (a Fado singer from Portugal) singing Aconteceu. These three pieces are lyrical, warm, emotional and soothing and have become a wonderful way for him to calm himself when he needs to. At school, at home, wherever we are – this music is magic for my boy. I LOVE it and don’t care how many times I hear them because they have opened the door to music for my little boy.

  8. This is “music without words” I discovered recently : para one

  9. I have a ten-year old daughter on the spectrum who has always been drawn to music. She started playing piano on her own at the age of two. Music has always been our go-to when it comes to meltdowns, either with her iPod (always with her) or her piano. Her fave piece? Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. George Gershwin was her “imaginary friend” for three years. I am delighted by your story, and thank you for sharing it 🙂

  10. Music is sure in everything we do, its all around if one pers up and ear, love it too.

  11. I’ve always liked Rhapsody in Blue, but my favorite piece by Gershwin is “I’ve got Rhythm.” My favorite classical piece by any composer is J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” I’ve always liked the sound of the organ, and that piece is so varied in its dynamics, rhythm, and tone. Legend has it that Bach used it to “test the lungs” on organs he wasn’t familiar with.

    • That’s a really neat story about the Toccata and Fugue – I’ve never heard the “test the lungs” anecdote – thanks! 🙂

      I love all of those pieces… So much amazing music. Even, yes, sometimes with words…

  12. Enya was a great choice – I enjoyed your thoughtful post.

  13. Orinoco flow is beautiful. It’s a catchy tune. It keeps one alert but at the same time it’s soothing. Classical as the name suggests is classic. There’s that certain finesse and the music is everlasting. Thanks for sharing Gretchen!


    • Thanks! I’m not Gretchen, though… we often share each other’s posts, so I could understand the confusion. She’s pretty awesome. 🙂 –E

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