The Power of Music

Can music help a stroke survivor? 
"In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical 'therapy' to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens."
-- Oliver Sacks 

Can music help a stroke survivor? The answer is a resounding YES. Music therapy can help in these important areas:
  • in speech, especially those who have aphasia
  • in motor function areas
  • in cognitive function
  • in emotional areas


For many people with aphasia, being able to sing when they could not speak was the most joyous realization in their recovery. This is because speech is processed primarily in the left side of the brain, but music is processed in multiple parts of the brain. Some of these overlap with speech centers and some do not.

Music and language both involve the auditory cortex so it makes sense that working on one would affect the other. Therapeutic singing and melodic intonation therapy (MIT, a method of inducing speech using musical tones or rhythm) have resulted in significant improvements in stroke survivors who have aphasia. The following two videos are people with aphasia who learned to speak by "singing out" the words:

Motor Skills

Motor recovery is perhaps an unexpected outcome of music therapy. Rhythmical music can help to increase movement and improve muscular control. For example, playing a drum can increase the range of motion of the arm, or walking to the beat of the music can help to increase control of the muscles.

It seems that the motor system is very responsive to the auditory system (try dancing without music). That means the right kind of music can help you to walk:

In addition to walking, music therapy can also promote hand rehabilitation. This is the theory behind the MusicGlove.

Cognitive Function

Listening to music has also been linked to improved cognition, including attention span, memory, organization, and ability to solve problems.

Music is highly engaging and activates multiple parts of the brain simultaneously. This makes it perfect for helping people with left-side neglect and difficulty with attention. Music can be used to capture someone’s attention (focused attention), hold it for a period of time (sustained attention), and get the survivor to switch back and forth between two things (alternating attention).

Emotion and Depression

Music plays a large role in mood for many people. Musical pieces can elicit pleasant emotions that are rooted in life memories. Music that evokes memories of pleasant interpersonal connections or achievements can elevate the mood by increasing relaxation, overall motivation, and helping to distract from the pain. Positive mood has been shown to play a significant role in stroke recovery. As early as 2008, researchers showed just listening to music for an hour each day improved memory and attention, as well as mood, during the early stages of stroke recovery.

Finding a music therapist:

FYI: Language as music, music as language