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Exploring Motor Uses of Instruments in Music Therapy – Guitar and Varied String Instruments

 by Madison Michel, MT-BC

Hello all, Madison here again with part 2 of my latest series! 

For my graduate practicum project in fulfillment of my master’s in music therapy at Colorado State University, I decided to delve into instruments and the creative ways we can use them as music therapists to address motor needs with a wide variety of clients. This is a resource intended for other music therapists, students, related professionals, anyone curious about music therapy. The following profiles are 2 of 8 total in which  I explore ways to use the instruments to address multiple motor needs. Be sure to click through the links to the demonstration videos in each profile for an even more in-depth look at each instrument. I hope you learn from and enjoy this project!

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Profile on Motor Uses of the Guitar

History of the Guitar

The guitar is a member of the family of stringed instruments played by plucking or strumming.  With a history spanning 5,000 years, from agent Egyptian pharaohs to the expansion of written solo guitar music in 1500’s Spain, to American jazz in the 1920s, the guitar is arguably one of the most well-loved instruments across time (Lloyd, 1968).

Music Therapy and the Guitar

The guitar is arguably one of the most commonly used, if not the most commonly used instrument for music therapists. It’s portable, taught in undergraduate curriculum, and used across populations. Music therapists use the guitar to work purposefully on motor or cognitive goals with various populations served. For motor needs, in particular, it is important for music therapists to be able to adapt the guitar in purposeful ways to meet a wide variety of needs in multiple populations with developmental and motor needs.

See Madison’s Demonstration Video: Exploring Motor Uses of Instruments in Music Therapy- Guitar


Motor Goal


Color or number coding chords

Finger strength and dexterity and Fine Motor coordination through forming chords

 Color coding or numbering of chord shapes on guitar to guide finger placement


1. Arm, hand, and/or finger flexion. 

2.Tactile sensory exploration of the strings.

1. Adjust position of guitar to target intended motor movement. 

2. Reposition or verbally direct change in movement to adjust to sensory needs.


Targets one or more fingers to coordinate a specified picking pattern. Finger isolation, strengthening, flexion, and coordination.

Number strings from top to bottom to coordinate pattern memorization. E as 1, A as 2, D as 3, G as 4, B as 5, and e as 6. 

Ex patterns- 1-4-5-6; 1-6-5-6; 6-5-4-3; 6-5-4-1; etc

Richard’s Tuning

Finger strength and dexterity and Fine motor coordination through forming chords

Alternate Tuning method that allows forming of chords with 1-2 fingers. D-G-D-E-A-D rather than standard tuning E-A-D-G-B-E (Richards, 2010).

Open Tuning

Allows for strumming or fingerpicking goals without formation of chords

Open D: D-A-D-F#-A-D

Open G: D-G-D-G-B-D

Open E: E-G#-E-G#-B-E

Open A: E-A-C#-A-C#-E

Mallet Play

Arm flexion, grasping, range of motion

Best in open tuning, strike guitar using a soft or hard mallet for different kinds of sounds, alternative to strumming or plucking, allows for movement of guitar and greater ranges of motion.

Profile on Motor Uses of Varied String Instruments

History of String Instruments

String instruments have a long history dating back thousands of years all over the world. Dating back 4500 years, the lyre is one of the earliest known string instruments. The Silk Road connected Asian, Middle Eastern, and European cultures and was a primary way that many string instruments developed over time. Modern string instruments evolved out of these multicultural influences. 

Music Therapy and String Instruments

While the guitar is likely the most commonly used string instrument by music therapists, other string instruments can offer even more variation in motor coordination, motor pattern cueing, and sensory stimulation dependent on the goal. Instruments like the Autoharp, the Dulcimer, the Guitalele, the Ukulele, and the Zither are just some of the fantastic tools a music therapist can utilize to vary the string instruments in their tool box. 

See Madison’s Demonstration Video: Exploring Motor Uses of Instruments in Music Therapy- Varied String

Motor Use


Finger Dexterity and Strength

  • Strumming with single fingers or combinations of different fingers can target range of motion and isolate to build strength with rich auditory and tactile feedback.

Sensory stimulation

  • Placing a body part on the wooden body or strings of an instrument while it is being played can provide rich tactile or proprioceptive stimulation.

Patterned Movement Support

  • String instruments provide a wide range for the music therapist to facilitate rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically stimulating patterns to support specific motor functions.


Cough, R. (1980). Guitar. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 68(1), 381–381.

Lloyd, Norman. (1968). Guitar. The Golden Encyclopedia of Music. (1st ed., pp 220) Racine, Wisconsin: Golden Press. 

Nypaver, A. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Richards, W. M. (2010). Richards’ Modified Tuning for Adapted Guitar. Rochester, NY: Time for Music.

Madison Michel, MT-BC

Music Therapist – Board Certified

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