Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools (2016-2017)

Voices Together is a specialized music therapy program designed to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities speak, communicate, express their thoughts, feelings, needs and connect with others socially. Since it was first developed over eight years ago, the program has consistently gained remarkable outcomes in seven school districts in North Carolina. Students with developmental disabilities are able to unlock language, solve problems, connect socially with others and communicate their most basic needs while increasing their ability to learn. Research by previous Bass Connections teams has explored the program’s effectiveness, and improvements have been found in children’s communication patterns.

Voices Together is extremely popular among special-education classroom teachers. However, those same teachers are struggling to reach children who have critical challenges in the area of communication and social/emotional learning. We have found a growing commitment from teachers to respond to the needs of children with developmental disabilities in innovative ways. Therefore, Voices Together developed a Teacher Toolbox to offer a set of techniques and methods that teachers can integrate into their classroom curriculum, expanding the program experience and potentially increasing student outcomes. The toolbox trains teachers in both the theory behind Voices Together intervention and the music tools necessary to incorporate the program into their classrooms.

The 2016-17 Bass Connections project set out to determine whether implementing the Voices Together music therapy program through the Teacher Toolbox an effective intervention in elementary schools. Team members began by learning about autism, music therapy, teacher professional development, research design and data collection, supplemented by guest speakers from the Duke Center for Autism & Brain Development and observations of Voices Together music therapy groups. The team developed an annotated bibliography and an expanded literature review on selected topics. Team members obtained research approval from Duke and the school system, finalized their study design, selected or developed data collection instruments and began data collection in Voices Together classrooms. In the spring, the team continued data collection and coded and entered baseline data.

The team studied nine special education elementary classrooms in Alamance County Schools. Serving as the control group were four classrooms utilizing the Voices Together program (weekly music therapy sessions with a professional Voices Together music therapist). The experimental group included five classrooms utilizing the program with teachers who had taken the Teacher Toolbox training to learn how to implement music therapy methods into their classrooms daily. Participants included 70 students and nine teachers. Preliminary data showed positive reactions to VT³ training. Mid-program interviews showed that 100% of the teachers implemented VT³ into their classrooms on a daily basis; reported positive experiences with learning and implementing non-directive approaches; observed improved social behavior in their students. Post-training Surveys showed great improvement in the teachers’ knowledge of Teacher Toolbox strategies.


Fall 2016 – Spring 2017

Team Outcomes

Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools (Kate Branch, Lawrence Lee, Paulina Paras, Maximilian Westerkam; honorable mention, best poster at EHDx)

Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools (presentation by Larry Lee and Kate Branch, EHDx Talks, April 19, 2017; winner, best talk at EHDx)

Voices Together: Music Therapy in Elementary Schools (presentation by Paulina Paras and Max Westerkam, Bass Connections Showcase, April 20, 2017)

Project website


Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools


Paulina Paras ’19

This Team in the News

Faculty Perspectives: Geraldine Dawson

Students Present Their Research and Learn from Each Other at the Bass Connections Showcase

From Durham to Brazil, Students Share Research Stories

Music Therapy: Tuned in to Autism

The Group That Sings Together Grows Together

Bass Connections Projects from Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

See photos of this team on Flickr

This project team was originally part of the Education & Human Development theme of Bass Connections, which ended in 2022. See related teams, Understanding the Effect of Music Therapy for Students with Autism: Analysis of Voices Together Data (2017-2018) and Voices Together: Music Therapy and Autism in Elementary Schools (2015-2016).

Team Leaders

  • Megan Gray, Social Science Research Institute
  • Lorrie Schmid, Social Science Research Institute
  • Jessica Sperling Smokoski, Social Science Research Institute

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Kate Branch, Evolutionary Anthropology (BS)
  • Larry Lee, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Paulina Paras, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Max Westerkam, Computer Science (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Geri Dawson, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Jan Riggsbee, Arts & Sciences-Program in Education

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Yasmine White, Voices Together