Percussion in Music Therapy blog

Percussion in Music Therapy: Motor Uses of Cabasa and Wooden Percussion Instruments

 by Madison Michel, MT-BC

I’m happy to be here again with Part 3 of my 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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percussion in music therapy

Profile on Motor Uses of the Cabasa

History of the Cabasa

A loose definition of the cabasa is a hollowed out gourd covered with some variety of beads or shells. The Cabasa, with strong resemblance to an African Shekere, has been credited in origin to Africa; however, Latin American traditional music also utilizes a cabasa, so it is unclear where it first originated. Likely, there were variations of the cabasa used in both of these parts of the world.

Music Therapy and the Cabasa

The modern version of a cabasa consists of a wooden or plastic instrument with metallic beading around the outside and a handle to play. The modern version is the most commonly used by music therapists, and indeed, music therapists who work with every population use the cabasa because of its versatility and appeal. The cabasa can be used as a sensory tool or rhythmic instrument in music therapy. It can be played by shaking or rolling, one hand or two hands, two people or one person. This makes it ideal to use with individuals who might have a wide variety of needs.

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

Motor Use


Sensorimotor stimulation

  • Rolling the cabasa on various parts of the body can provide proprioceptive and tactile input for individuals with sensory needs.
  • The cabasa can also be held and moved in place to stimulate a specific joint and enhance flexibility.
  • The cabasa is an excellent tool for teaching self soothing sensory stimulation skills, which requires motor awareness.

Wrist flexion and extension

  • One-handed play can be used to hold the handle of the cabasa and move the beads back and forth against a steady surface OR to move the beads of the cabasa back and forth while the cabasa is held steady. 
  • Two-handed play can be used to extend and flex both wrists at once to manipulate the cabasa OR one hand can function as the steady handle or surface while wrist flexion and extension is practiced to play with the other hand.


  • Cabasas come in a variety of sizes offering variety in diameter and weight, making them naturally adaptable for grasping skills. Adaptive grips can also be applied.
  • Since they have metal beading, some cabasas, especially larger ones have some weight to them and can be used to build strength and endurance through continuous play. You can practice playing in various positions with arms extended to vary the muscles used.

Finger or toe flexion

  • The beads of the cabasa do not all have to be moved for it to make noise. Just manipulating one or two rows of beads allows for more specific targeting of finger extension or even practice with toe extension!

Profile on Motor Uses of Wooden Percussion Instruments

History of Wooden Percussion Instruments

 Percussion instruments, particularly wooden percussion instruments, are considered to be the most ancient instrument family. If you have a pair of sticks off the ground and can hit them together, you can make music! Wooden percussion instruments have been refined over time all over the world to create distinct, well-known instruments such as Afro Cuban Claves, Castanets used by ancient Greeks and Egyptians, Woodblocks tracing origin back to china, and the Guiro with Caribbean roots.

Music Therapy and Wooden Percussion Instruments

 Music therapists utilize the instruments listed above and more in music therapy sessions. Most wooden percussion instruments are not pitched, making them easy to play with any kind of music. Ribbed rhythm sticks and guiros provide a sensory-rich experience through texture. Wooden percussion instruments are far more accessible and inexpensive than other instruments, making them a fantastic, easy tool for music therapists to acquire.

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

Motor Use


Sensorimotor stimulation

  • Varied textures offered by guiros and other ribbed wooden percussion instruments offer varied tactile and proprioceptive feedback when played with the hands or played against various body parts

Bilateral coordination

  • Playing instruments with two hands requires the use of bilateral coordination. When done successfully, there will be auditory and tactile feedback.
  • Instruments can be held at various distances to give opportunity to pursue greater ranges of motion.
  • Instruments can be played in different ways such as tapping, scraping, or rolling to vary the practiced coordination.
  • Visual targets can be utilized to represent where to play and offer greater variety in range of motion and coordination.
  • Role-playing, using wooden percussion instruments like sticks as representative of something else like silverware, offers a way to target and reinforce specified motor coordination skills within the context of music.


  • Wooden percussion instruments of varied shape and thickness can be used to practice grasping for a duration of time during instrument play.
  • Castanets can be used for a more targeted grasp and coordination between fingers.


Madison Michel, MT-BC

Music Therapist – Board Certified

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