About SoI


The 'Sounds of Intent' research project was set up in 2002 jointly by the Institute of Education, Roehampton University, and the Royal National Institute of the Blind.

The aim of Sounds of Intent is to investigate and promote the musical development of children and young people with learning difficulties - although the system can also be used effectively with adults.

The research team has developed a framework of musical development that covers the whole range of ability from profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) to those with autism, with or without exceptional musical abilities (so-called savants).

The framework is freely available to anyone who wishes to use it, and works on all platforms, though it is particularly well suited to touch-screen technology (such as iPads).

The software enables ideas for promoting children's engagement with music to be viewed and downloaded, and for individual children to be assessed.

Teachers, therapists, other practitioners and parents can register to assess their children online. Assessments can be made as a one-off or over a period of time. The results can be printed out as numbers or in graphical form.

The research team is grateful for extensive support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Amber Trust.


The Sounds of Intent framework of musical development is based on research with three main elements.

  • Observational data of children with learning difficulties and/or autism experiencing or engaging with music have been gathered by practitioners through video recordings and fieldnotes. Many hundreds of observations have been made, and over 200 are included on this website. These have been analysed for responses, actions or interactions deemed to be representative, exceptional or in any way indicative of attainment or progress.
  • The analysis has been informed by psychological research pertaining to 'typical' early musical development, including listening, producing and responding to music and musical sounds from the period of foetal development through to the first years of life.
  • The model is underpinned too by zygonic theory - which seeks to explain how music makes sense to us all, and in particular that mature engagement with music entails the (typically subconscious) attribution of derivation to its constituent sounds, whereby one is felt to generate another or others through imitation. This applies both to structural understanding (through which music 'makes sense') as well as aesthetic response (which includes music's apparent capacity to express or represent emotion). The theory has been used to predict the order in which the musical abilities it implies are likely to evolve in children (irrespective of their learning difficulties).

Why focus on early musical development?

The PROMISE research, undertaken at the turn of the century that investigated the provision of music in special schools in England, demonstrated that many of those working with children with learning difficulties and autism regard music as an essential ingredient in their lives, both as a worthy focus of attention and source of pleasure in its own right, as well as a means of promoting wider learning and development. However, the musical development of children with complex needs has, until now, been largely uncharted territory.

Some argue that it is inadvisable —if not impossible— to attempt to study and conceptualise the early stages of musical development in a discrete way since engagement with music is almost invariably embedded within broader (non-musical) contexts, occurring as part of other activity. Even in the domain of hearing, music often arrives mixed up with everyday sounds and is frequently encountered as a composite form of communication inextricably linked to words. Clearly, such interdependence is fundamental and must be taken into account. However, since music has the capacity to emerge from the 'buzzing, blooming' confusion of early perception as a distinct entity in sound, it should be possible to track its development and emergence through the process of maturation and there is now a considerable body of evidence for musical development in the 'neurotypical' population. This evidence should in turn enable those working with children with learning difficulties or autism both to offer more effective support in engaging with music as an activity in its own right, as well as better enabling them to use music as a scaffold to structure other learning and development.