One of the songs I play most often in music therapy sessions is “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as recorded by The Tokens in 1961.  This is one of those rare songs that isn’t limited to a specific age group or population, which makes it very versatile for music therapists, related professionals, and families.

Here are five ways I’ve used this song in music therapy settings:


Because this song is so well-known and has simple lyrics, it is a great song for the neurologic music therapy technique Musical Speech Stimulation (MUSTIM).  This technique uses fill-in-the-blanks to encourage clients to speak or sing.  When I use this song to stimulate speech, I pause before saying the last word in the phrase and prompt the client to complete the phrase.  For example, I might sing, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps…” and wait for the client to sing or say “tonight.”

2. Articulation

When I use this song in groups with one or more nonverbal clients, I like to use vocables (non-words) for a verse to encourage non-speakers to sing.  If the group doesn’t have an articulation-specific goal, I’ll often use bilabial sounds such as /b/ or /m/ as they are usually the first consonant sounds to develop.

3. Songwriting

When working with clients on making and communicating choices, offer choices for different animals, places, and actions to put in the song.  For example, I ask clients, “Should we sing about a lion or a penguin?” while showing a visual of each one.  When clients express choices verbally or gesturally, I place their choices on a dry erase board with the lyrics, then lead the group in singing our new verse.

4. Receptive Language

This song is great for facilitating noun and/or verb identification and building vocabulary.  Sing several verses, each about a different animal, action, or location.  Challenge clients to find or match the item in each verse from an appropriate field of choices.

5. Attention Modulation

This is a motivating song to use for sustained attention and 1- or 2-step direction following.  It’s fun and easy to embed directions in this tune.  For example, the music therapist can tell the client which instrument to play (“[client name] plays the drum” or “[client name] plays tambourine”).  The therapist can also embed verbal directions for dynamic or tempo changes (loud, soft, fast, slow, etc.).

When working on sustained attention with groups, I often embed directions in 2 or 3 verses, then up the challenge by leading musical changes without verbal prompts!

I hope these uses of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” spark some ideas for you and your clients!

Do you have any other uses for this song?  Let us know in the comments section below!