Sign Language for Music

Posted: July 12, 2011 in Music Therapy

One of the challenges of music therapy is communication with people who don’t use any means of communication.  A lot of the clients I work with have no means of communication – no words, no signs, no pictures, not really any gestures.  So that’s a big thing I work with – trying to teach some functional communication skills.

Growing up, I thought of ASL (American Sign Language) as something used exclusively by deaf people.  It wasn’t until I started working with special populations that I started seeing it as a means of communication for anyone who had none.  My biggest exposure to it was working in San Diego, where signs were the primary way many of the kids communicated their wants and needs – eat, drink, bathroom, more, work, play, swing, sit, stand, jump, and all done were added to my vocabulary, as well as many others.

Now, working as a music therapist, I find myself confronted with the problem of trying to teach communication skills to some people, primarily adults, who don’t communicate in appropriate manners.  Yes, they communicate – D, for example, expressed his discomfort by exhibiting self-injurious behaviors.  Others are aggressive, others will simply stand up and leave when they don’t want to be somewhere.  And while these behaviors speak volumes, they’re really not good.  So we try to teach more socially acceptable means of communication so others can understand what they’re trying to say.

So I’ve been trying to work on signs in music.  One problem with this has been  trying to find the signs I need.  At this time, I’m mostly working on signs as a means to choose what instruments people would like to play in music.  Which means that I need signs for instruments.  It hasn’t been easy to find – I’m limited to what’s on the internet, and music instruments are not always easy to find.  I have built up a vocabulary of a few official signs, and a few I made up:

  • Music – Wave your right hand over your left arm.
  • Guitar – Mime playing a guitar.
  • Drum – Mime playing a drum.
  • Piano – Move your hands out and in while miming playing the keys.
  • Listen – Make an L shape with your right hand and hold it to your ear.
  • Bell – Hold an imaginary bell with the fingers of your right hand and strike your left palm.
  • Tambourine – Strike a closed right fist against your left palm.
  • Xylophone (which I also use for glockenspiel) – Mime using sticks to play a xylo while moving from left to right.
  • Egg shakers (I just use the sign for egg) – Two fingers of your right hand brought down on two fingers of your left hand.
  • Rain Stick (I just use the sign for rain) – Bring your hands down, mimicking rain fall.  Don’t wiggle your fingers – that’s snow.
  • Maraca (I made this one up) – Hold imaginary maracas in both hands.  Hold one hand up with the other crossed in front of your body.  Shake.
  • Q Chord (I made this one up too) – Use the Q sign (thumb and index finger pointed down), and mimic the music sign with it.

This is just where I am right now.  Hopefully, I’ll get some more in my vocabulary soon.  If anyone knows of some I missed, or if I’ve got any of these completely wrong, please let me know.  Thanks!


  1. Laura Rando says:

    Hi Jesse,

    I’m a graduate music therapy student researching use of ASL in music therapy as part of an independent study. I would love to learn more about how you use signs in your sessions.


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