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Music Can Heal the Brain

January 31st, 2010 · 4 Comments · Music and the Brain

Over the years, researchers have studied the various effects of music on human health, intelligence, and well-being, but more recently, researchers came to fascinating conclusions regarding music’s medicinal qualities. Music’s various positive benefits reach diverse groups of people: adolescents involved with music perform better in school , music increases exercise endurance by up to 15%, music lowers stress levels, anxiety, and depression in pregnant women, and may be an inexpensive and enjoyable way to facilitate recovery in stroke patients -imagine that!

In order to fully comprehend music’s influence on stroke recovery, we must consider the mechanics. A stroke occurs when blood supply to part of the brain is blocked, which prevents the admittance of oxygen and glucose. Without oxygen, brain cells die. This blockage results most commonly from the blockage of a small artery within the brain itself, but there are several other mechanisms for a stroke as well. Some factors that lead to strokes and artery blockage include: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking. Strokes are unexpected and dangerous incidences that remain the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer. A Harvard Imaging technique reveals increased brain activity when people play or listen to music because more blood and oxygen flow to the brain, healing brain damage.

Researchers find that music aides in the recovery process by improving damage to verbal memory and attention. The brain is more plastic immediately following a stroke episode, and greater plasticity- the brain’s ability to re-wire itself – increases music’s effect. So, the optimal time for music therapy is during the first weeks of stroke recovery for a couple hours per day (University of Helsinki, 2008). Music not only enhances attention and triggers verbal memory but also improves mood, heightening a pleasurable response.
Särkämö, a PhD student at the Cognitive Brain Research Unit, Department of Psychology, at the University of Helsinki and at the Helsinki Brain Research Centre (in Finland), conducted an experiment with stroke recovery patients to test this hypothesis. Prior to treatment, patients exhibited problems with movement, cognitive processes, attention, and memory as a result of their strokes. He randomly assigned them to three different groups: a music listening group, a language group, or a control group. For six months, the music group religiously listened to a musical genre of their choice, while the language group listened to audio books. The control group did not listen to any auditory material during this time. All other conditions remained the same for the three groups. The results showed that music listeners had an improvement of 60 percent, compared to the first week after the stroke. That was more than twice the improvement in the non-listeners, and three times the improvement in the audio book listeners. Furthermore, focused attention improved by 17 percent for music listeners but not at all for the other groups (University of Helsinki, 2008). Additional improvements were noted in the music listener’s mood. This experiment applauds music’s extraordinary ability to rehabilitate the brain. More universally, this illustrates a stimulus that emotionally connects the listener with his or her environment. Music that grabs the patient’s attention and moves him or her can repair and renew previously damaged neural networks.

Music therapy can be applied in different ways depending on severity and type of brain damage. Damage to Broca’s area (left frontal lobe) inhibits speech, but a healthy right hemisphere can still process melody and rhythm. “Melodic Intonation Therapy,” cured a patient who suffered from “aphasia”-loss of the ability to produce and/or comprehend language. The patient created sentences in rhythm to melodies to facilitate coherent speech. Before, he could not string simple sentences or phrases together. Eventually, the patient detached the melody from the lyrics to form normal speaking sentences.

The basic requirement for music therapy hinges on a stimulus that sparks a connection with the listener. The listener chose the music genre most pleasurable to himself/herself. Whether it is raga, classical, pop, jazz, or rock, music stimulates a pleasurable emotional response that aids the brain in recovery from damage like a stroke.

This article was originally pusblished on that this article was originally posted on the site Psychology in the News  and  the author is  Jennifer Beckerman.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Melanie

    Dear Alice Cash,
    Google Alerts for articles about strokes led me to your website. My Dad suffered a stroke 3 weeks ago. I sent this article to my mom, both my sisters, one who is an RN and someone I know who is going to start studying Acupuncture next year.

    Thanks for your article!

  • Kat Fulton

    Thanks for your article ~ The power of music is incredible, isn’t it? It’s really great the way you tie in research to your article. Always important to validate our arguments. Thanks for sharing!

  • Laurie

    My mother suffered a stroke in January and lost all speech. We played music CDs from day 1 of her recovery. She also, being a piano teacher for many year, started to sing children’s songs because she said she needed to keep her vocal chords active. We then tried singing what she wanted to say to little melodies like Mary Had a Little Lamb and she had much better speech recal and clarity. However, her 3 months of speech therapy never once used music as part of that therapy. Her recovery has been quite incredible – just doing what came natural to her. Had she not had such a music background and not tried these on her own, her progress might not have been as good. More needs done to educate stroke rehab providers on these powerful and effective methods.

  • Dr. Alice Cash

    Thank you all for these powerful comments and affirmations! Hope you’ll keep coming back to this blog!

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