The healing powers of music: repairing brain damage

I have already written several blog posts about the healing powers of music. It’s interesting to note just how many times music is used for healing purposes; from relaxation to recovering from cancer. According to science, music can have a powerful effect on repairing brain damage.

Patients with left-side brain damage who can no longer speak can find they are able to sing words, often without any difficulty or training.

Melodic intonation therapy, or singing until you can talk, takes advantage of the fact that language functions are located in the left brain, but music lives over on the right side of the brain. When a stroke or brain damage occurs, damaging or stopping speech, the brain can be trained to move those functions to the other side by associating music with language. This essentially rewires a lifetime of growth.

Listening to music, particularly classical music, has an additional effect, since pleasurable music releases dopamine that simply makes certain parts of your brain function better, particularly if they were damaged before. In a nutshell, music gives your brain a massage and fills it with happy chemicals.

Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords’ story also highlights the potential of this fairly new field of medicine. Giffords was shot in the head last year by a gunman near Tucson, Arizona.

Among the devastating consequences of her brain injury from the gunshot wound, Giffords lost the ability to talk. But with help from music-based therapy, she has rediscovered her voice and, it seems, her spirit.

As early as the post-World War II era, physical therapists noticed that Big Band music helped wounded veterans get up and learn to walk again.

Since then, researchers have documented a consistent pattern. When given a rhythm to walk to, people with Parkinson’s disease, strokes and other forms of neurological damage are able to regain a symmetrical stride and a sense of balance. Each beat serves as an auditory cue that the brain uses to anticipate timing and regulate footfalls.

For Giffords, therapy started with songs like ‘Happy Birthday,’ said Maegan Morrow, the Congresswoman’s music therapist at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston. Giffords would simply sing one or two syllables to start with, that is, the word “you” after Morrow sang, “Happy Birthday to…”

Over time, Giffords learned to repeat ordinary phrases in a sing-songy voice. A song would over time become a rhyme and then a chant and finally a spoken phrase with the natural rhythm of speech.

For Giffords, who spent months in the hospital and has faced a long haul toward recovery, music may have primed her to do the hard work she needed to do, Morrow said. The Congresswoman came in with a great love for all kinds of music, she added, from show tunes to pop rock, which probably helped her progress and she relearned how to talk and walk.

“Music is an automatic motivator,” Morrow said. “It is the easiest way to get you in a good mood, to bring you out of the situation you’re in and bring you to a new place.”

This story illustrates just how important music therapy can be for victims of brain damage. There are many other wonderful benefits from music’s healing powers too which I will be exploring soon.

PHOTO: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords music therapy

Gabrielle Giffords undergoing music therapy as part of her recovery.
Photo courtesy of ABC news.

Main source: CBC News Canada


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Melanie

    Great blog and I love your playing! A question that needs to be addressed, where music is concerned, is WHY music can heal (and I am absolutely certain that it can). I think this needs to be researched more and discussed in music education environments. Sadly, music is often reduced to something that entertains. And the entertainment part is fine, but, of course, it is much more than that. I have been researching into the meaning of music for some time. I stumbled across your blog. Keep writing. It is most refreshing.

    1. Hi Geraldine,
      Thank you so much for your comment. You are right of course, very little research has been done on this huge topic. Perhaps this will change soon?
      So glad you like my blog – great to meet you on here 🙂

  2. I sufferd a tbi in 2009 Mozart and yoga have caused my brain to work far better I do believe my brain damage has repaired by the combination of the two

  3. James Landreville says:

    My daughter Dominique Landreville (18) was struck by a car on November 6th 2013 while she was walking home from work. she suffered severe traumatic brain injury. My wife and I brought her home three weeks after the accident to care for her. Dominique was in a non responsive state or coma when we brought her home. I have been playing classical music to her every night for several hours. and several hours during the day. We were told our daughter may never become responsive. I believe through music our daughter after one month is not only responsive, eyes wide open, she has fluid and strong movement in the left side of her body. She reaches reaches for a ball and hands it to us. Two days ago she answered several questions by nodding or shaking her head just slightly. I strongly believe music has helped repair her pathways and I liked to hear of this ” melodic intonation therapy”. The left side of her brain sustained the majority of the damage and this article may directly help Dominique. I research every day for ways to help rehabilitate our daughter and your blog gave me even more hope and truly made me smile. Thank you for making our long road a little brighter.

    1. Dear James,
      Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m so pleased your daughter is making good progress. It is really uplifting to hear, first hand, just how healing music can be. I wish Dominique a smooth and swift path to recovery. Many, many thanks for your comment, Warm wishes, Melanie

  4. John says:

    I think the whole idea of music for healing is actually quite fascinating. In the article it says that since music can release dopamine, it aids the body’s healing process. I think this is great because some forms of alternative therapy or healing can be extremely effective. In this case, it seems as though music could be really beneficial in helping those that have had some sort of brain damage.

  5. michael sung says:

    I’m so hopeful after finding this page. My dad suffered cardiac arrest almost five days ago. When he did not initially respond the next day, my family prepared me for the worst. I am curious if a traumatic brain injury, like in Dominique’s case is any different in terms of the course for recovery when it compares to brain damage due to lack of oxygen from a heart attack. Is the damage to the brain in each case too different that my efforts will be of waste? Am I being selfish to push the hospital into keeping him there longer in hopes of continued progress and recovery when there are likely other patients needing the hospital bed he lies in? I have witnessed him today in a better condition in my mind than he had been in the day before, and the day before that, and so forth. Even though it seems the doctor is concerned about providing us with possible findings of permanent brain damage, I can not accept that there is no possible therapy available. Please pray for him that music therapy will be of benefit to him, too! All the best.

    1. Many thanks for your comment Michael. Sending prayers and positive vibes to you and your father, Melanie

  6. Mia says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I saw a Facebook meme that music can heal the brain and started Google searching. Your article is amongst the first that has come up. I’m looking for a list of music to play for a young child with memory issues and an elderly lady who is beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s. I’m hoping there is a list somewhere as I don’t know where to start or what sort of music other than classical would be helpful.

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