I have already written several blog posts about the healing powers of music. It’s interesting 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 trouble 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 deranged 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 ie. 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.