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Music Therapy For Stroke, Brain Injuries, and Neurological Diseases

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 4, 2023

Have you ever heard a song that was your favorite years and years ago? You may not have even heard it for 20 years. But you can still sing along, remembering every word. That experience happens because music memory is partly independent from other human memory systems. That separation is also why researchers are turning to music as a possible treatment for patients who have suffered from stroke, brain injuries, or even neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease (PD).


Neurologic music therapy is similar to approaches such as speech therapy or physiotherapy as it aims to improve the quality of daily life of patients. Music therapy pairs music with other therapies, such as walking to a specific beat when relearning to walk after a trauma.


Using music to heal the brain


Previously, music was often used to provide increased well-being through its emotional therapy components. However, magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalograms have allowed researchers to better understand the physiological impacts of music on the brain.


Neurologic music therapy already has seen promising results in the rehabilitation of stroke survivors as they work to recover language, relearn how to walk, and improve their physical movement when compared to more typical treatments.


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This therapy also has been used in patients who suffer from other movement disorders, such as PD. Many of the studies in PD patients have focused on harnessing the brain’s ability to naturally synchronize with a beat without conscious thought. This type of rhythmic entrainment exercise has shown that Parkinson’s patients can improve their walking and reduce moments of freezing (when a person is unable to move despite wanting to do so).


Neurologic music therapy also has shown to be beneficial for patients with a traumatic brain injury or who have Huntington’s disease. The therapeutic techniques in these cases have focused on stimulating or activating damaged areas of the brain. One study found that such music therapies worked to improve the concentration and attention of patients who had traumatic brain injuries. This positively impacted their well-being by lowering their feelings of depression and anxiety.


The complex processing of music


In many neurological conditions, patients are dealing with synaptic problems in the brain rather than damage or issues with one particular part of the brain. Music activates multiple areas of the brain simultaneously, which may be why neurologic music therapy works better than therapies that don’t use music alone. 


Research has shown it is not simply the act of listening, such as listening to an audiobook, that forms new connections in the brain, but rather listening specifically to music that builds those connections. Neuron repair triggered by music may result in a better-functioning brain that begins building new connections.


Neurologic music therapy is still a relatively new field of study, and there is still much to be learned before it is considered a mainstream treatment by many healthcare systems and providers. However, research is currently being done to see if patients with diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can benefit from this therapeutic approach.


Written by Sheena McFarland

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