The healing powers of music: repairing brain damage

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.

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


My publications:For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Can music really slow down the ageing process?

A very interesting new study has revealed that music can help slow down the ageing process. Think this sounds too good to be true? then read on….

Researchers in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in the US, measured the automatic brain responses of younger and older musicians and nonmusicians to speech sounds. They discovered that older musicians had a distinct neural timing advantage and concluded that age-related delays in neural timing are not inevitable and can be avoided or delayed with musical training.

Neuroscientist Nina Kraus commented “The older musicians not only outperformed their older nonmusician counterparts, but they encoded the sound stimuli as quickly and accurately as the younger nonmusicians”. “This reinforces the idea that how we actively experience sound over the course of our lives has a profound effect on how our nervous system functions.”

The data suggests that intensive training even late in life could improve speech processing in older adults and improve their ability to communicate in complex, noisy acoustic environments. Don Caspary, a researcher on age-related hearing loss at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine says “They support the idea that the brain can be trained to overcome, in part, some age-related hearing loss”.

Previous studies from Kraus’ Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory suggest that musical training also offsets losses in memory and difficulties hearing speech in noise — two common complaints of older adults. The lab has been extensively studying the effects of musical experience on brain  plasticity across the life span in normal and clinical populations, and in  educational settings.

What great news. Music can have so many positive influences on our general well being and I am going to examine a few of the most common ways that it can heal us both physically and mentally in future blog posts. It really can have a huge impact on our lives. You don’t always have to play an instrument either, often listening or meditating to music can be very beneficial too.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.