Percussion in Music Therapy blog

Understanding Attention Goals in Music Therapy: Selective Attention (Part 3)

by Madison Michel, MM, MT-BC

Read Part 1 Understanding Attention Goals in Music Therapy: Focused Attention here
Read Part 2 Understanding Attention Goals in Music Therapy: Sustained Attention here

Clinical 5 Model of Attention

Thaut and Gardiner developed a model for attention that breaks down attention skills into five specific skills that sequentially build on each other (Thaut & Gardiner, 2014). Part 3 of this blog series will center on selective attention. 

1. Focused Attention: Focusing on a stimulus in light of distraction from other stimuli

2. Sustained Attention: Maintaining attention to a stimulus over time

3. Selective Attention: Selecting salient information from a larger body

4. Alternating Attention: Shifting between focusing on different stimuli

5. Divided Attention: Maintaining focus on two sources of information at the same time

Selective Attention

How do selective attention skills present in everyday life? 

In my previous blog post on sustained attention, I discussed the metaphor of sustaining attention on studying for a duration of time while at the library, despite distraction stimuli. As you continue to sustain your attention on studying, your next step is to select what information is most relevant to study out of all your lecture recordings, notes, assignments, and textbooks. This skill is called selective attention. 

Building on sustained attention skills, selective attention refers to isolating salient or relevant information from a larger body. This information can be presented through multisensory mediums, but is typically auditory and/or visual. 

When is it appropriate to address selective attention with clients in music therapy? 

If a client is successfully sustaining attention to activities for durations of time but focusing on non relevant information, this may indicate that there are selective attention needs. For example, if you’re singing the song “Old McDonald,” with a visual, and the client is fixated on the red barn rather than making a choice from animals presented, this indicates attention is focused/sustained on the activity, but there is a selective attention need. 

Interventions for Selective Attention

Once focused and sustained attention are established, selective attention interventions should require clients to distinguish between and filter relevant information within an intervention. As mentioned above, a simple way to address selective attention is through the use of visuals. Is the client locating details in the visual that match with the auditory information/song? Is the client making choices from visual information to influence the auditory information/song? If they are not, try making the visual information stronger through the use of size, placement, color, proximity, and gestures. Use your musicality to make relevant auditory information stand out more. Another way to design a selective attention intervention is to establish a musical cue to listen for. This could be a melodic cue, a harmonic cue, a rhythmic cue, a timbre change, or any combination of these various musical elements. When the client hears the established cue, they should respond with an action, whether that be to raise their hand, shake or switch instruments, give vocal response, or even play back the cue. With musicality at your disposal, there are endless ways to simplify, complicate, or change the task to be appropriate for client needs, as long as the client is selecting and reacting to relevant stimuli within a larger body of information. 

Goal Writing for Selective Attention

Selective attention objectives should center around completing tasks to communicate awareness and understanding of salient information or manipulate said information. I find that a frequency count within a duration is often a good way to track this, though a duration is not always necessary or relevant. Prompt counts can be used to offer more or less support. Remember objectives are not universal and should always be individualized for each client’s needs and adjusted overtime. 

Goal: Client will improve selective attention in 80% of sessions.

Music Therapy Objective Example:

Client will demonstrate selective attention by correctly identifying salient visual information that matches auditory information within a story song 10X within the duration of 5 minutes, given no more than one musical or verbal prompt per trial. 

Multidisciplinary Objective Example:

Client will demonstrate selective attention by correctly identifying salient visual information that matches auditory information within a story or activity, 10X within the duration of 5 minutes, given no more than one verbal prompt per trial. 

In Conclusion

In summary, selective attention involves identifying and focusing on salient sensory information within a larger body.  There are endless ways to manipulate music experiences with auditory and visual information to suit client’s specific selective attention needs.  


Thaut, Michael H., & Gardiner, James, C. (2014). Musical attention control training. In Thaut, Michael H., & Hoemberg, Volker (Eds.), Handbook of neurologic music therapy. (1st ed., pp. 257-269). Oxford University Press.

Madison Michel, MM, MT-BC

Music Therapist – Board Certified

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