Music Therapy Can Help Reclaim Language


Linda Wasmer Andrews

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A stroke or brain injury can rob you of the ability to communicate effectively. It’s a big loss, because language is vital for relating to others and getting along in daily life. But with a tune in your head and a song on your lips, you may be able to reclaim some of the speaking and listening skills you’ve lost.

Mood Music

Music has the power to soothe. When you feel stressed by speech and language disabilities, this relaxing effect may be especially welcome. Plus, music can enhance your sense of well-being and boost your motivation. In this positive frame of mind, you’re in a better position to make the most of your therapies.

Anyone can switch on an MP3 player or radio. But some people take it a step further. Music therapy is a treatment that involves listening to or making music for therapeutic purposes under the guidance of a trained professional. One preliminary study of music therapy in people with brain injuries found that it reduced depression and anxiety. Less distracted by negative emotions, you’re free to focus more energy on your recovery.

Brain Connections

Beyond the mood lift, there may be a more direct link between music and language. Listening to or making music is a complex brain activity. It activates areas of the brain that are involved in a variety of functions, such as emotion, thought, movement, and hearing. Some of these same areas also may be useful for producing language.

In addition, the human brain has a remarkable ability known as plasticity. This means that it can reorganize itself, functionally and structurally, in response to new demands. Intensive practice of a skill, such as playing a musical instrument or singing, might help the healthy areas of your brain assume a bigger role in language. You don’t need to be a good musician or singer for this to occur—just one who practices regularly.

Melodic Intonation Therapy

A treatment approach called melodic intonation therapy (MIT) is used to treat non-fluent aphasia. People with this condition have trouble saying what they want to say because of damage to the brain’s language network. Often, the condition is caused by a stroke or injury on the front left side of the brain.

For more than a century, doctors have known that people with non-fluent aphasia frequently can sing words that they can’t speak. So researchers began looking for ways to use melody and rhythm in treatment. In the early 1970s, this led to the development of MIT. Think of it as the marriage of music therapy and speech-language therapy.

In MIT, people start by singing, rather than speaking, familiar phrases. At the same time, they tap out the rhythm of the syllables with their left hand—the hand controlled by the undamaged right side of the brain. With intensive practice, the goal is to work up gradually to speaking the phrases instead of singing them.

More research on MIT is still needed. But small studies suggest that it may improve the ability to speak not only the practice phrases, but also other phrases and words. Here’s how researchers think MIT may work:

  • Music function. The undamaged right side of the brain processes both music and patterns of stress and intonation in language. Singing makes words more musical, so it may activate these right-side abilities. That, in turn, may reduce dependence on the left side of the brain for language.

  • Movement function. Tapping the left hand may engage areas on the right side of the brain that control both hand and mouth movements. Plus, tapping may act like a metronome, setting a slow, steady pace for speaking and giving the speaker a cue when it’s time for the next syllable.

  • Plasticity. Over time, MIT may lead to changes in brain structure. A study by Harvard researchers looked at six people with non-fluent aphasia after a stroke. These patients had brain scans before and after taking part in an intensive MIT program. The after-treatment scans showed an increased number of fibers in a key pathway on the right side of the brain. This type of change explains how treatment can lead to lasting improvements in language ability.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 15, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Altenmuller E, et al. Neural Reorganization Underlies Improvement in Stroke-Induced Motor Dysfunction by Music-Supported Therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2009;1169:395-405. 
  2. Aphasia. National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
  3. Bradt J, et al. Music T