Williams Syndrome

Insights into the Musical Potential of Cognitively Impaired People Diagnosed with Williams Syndrome. Howard M. Lenhoff

Although William’s syndrome people have cognitive impairments, many show signs of having unusual musical abilities. Music therapy is a growing area of therapeutic treatment for these people.
1. seem to show signs of unusual musical abilities
2. cognitive scientists are doing research on WS people and their affinity for music
3. some parents are finding that Williams people can compensate for their deficits through music. Ie. tie their shoe laces
4. a number of music teachers will not take them as students because they can’t read notation.
Williams people are missing a group of genes from one of their chromosomes. Typical problems they deal with are both cognitive and behavioral including
1. trouble with simple addition and subtractions
2. spacial relationships
3. logical reasoning
4. abstract ideas
5. have the condition called “hyperacusis” – allowing them to hear the faintest sounds. Many have perfect pitch
6. extremely warm, kind personalities and show a great deal of empathy in understanding the feelings of others
7. show a high level of language development. Musically many show a great love, appreciation and talent for music.

Gloria has Williams Syndrome, the daughter of Howard M. Lenhoff, the author of the article, was unaware his daughter had William’s syndrome as a child. A PBS documentary was filmed of her called ‘Bravo Gloria’ describing her outstanding musical talents. She is a lyric soprano with perfect pitch, skilled at playing the large piano accordion, and has a repertoire of over 2000 pieces in 25 languages. She doesn’t read music notation and has only just learned the white keys on the piano.
Williams people learn best in 1:1 situations, most of their learning occurs through hearing, musical notation tends to hinder their learning due to their difficulty in grasping music theory and due to motor limitations they do best with voice, keyboard instruments, and drums.

I chose this article because of my fascination and familiarity with a girlfriends sister with Williams Syndrome. She could play the organ and had many of the typical physical characteristics of WS such as her inability to reason logically, forgetfulness and high level of language development. She also was a very loving girl, was well liked by her peers but clearly stood out as being different than the normal child. Her face was small and she had the full lower lip and puffy eyes that are also typical characteristics of WS.
I was always fascinated with her because she didn’t fit into the stereotypical idea of a person with mental retardation, there were too many brilliant facets to Sue.
For obvious reasons I enjoyed learning about the unique musical abilities and strengths that Williams people typically have, hyperacusis being one. It was useful to read about some of the teaching strategies that are effective when working with a child like this, such as 1:1 situations work best, learning by ear and not forcing them to learn musical notation as this is their weakness not their strength. Our job as music therapists will be to help them to feel successful in music.



Brodsky, W. & Niedorf, H. (1986). “Songs from the heart”:
New paths to greater maturity. Arts in Psychotherapy, 13(4), 333-341.

Lenhoff, H.M. (1998). Insights into the musical potential of
cognitively impaired People Diagnosed with Williams
Syndrome. Music Therapy Perspectives, 16, 33-36.

Stambaugh, L. (1996). Special learners with special abilities.
Music Educators Journal, 16, 19-22.

Williams Syndrome Association (2001). http:// www.