s a music therapist, I use music as my tool to
help clients and patients improve. I use music
to help them think, move and communicate
better as well as socialize more appropriately.
Music is effective because it stimulates multiple parts of
the brain simultaneously, stimulates the production of
endorphins and is highly engaging.
Let me correct one myth right away: Music therapists
do not try to improve a person’s ability to sing or play an
instrument — that is the job of a music educator.
Who benefits from music therapy?
Music therapy is used with a wide spectrum of people.
For instance, it is used with people with neurologic
conditions such as stroke, but also with infants in the
neo-natal intensive care unit, children with autism, people
with behavioral and psychiatric disorders, intellectual and
physical disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease and those in
How might stroke survivors benefit from
Music therapy is used to improve three areas of
functioning with survivors: motor, speech and cognitive.
Because there is a strong connection between what
we hear and movement (try dancing without music), and
because music is an organized and predictable stimulus, it
is effective at improving motor deficits caused by stroke.
A survivor can have a more regular gait by walking
to the beat of a familiar song. And playing instruments such
as drums, piano or a triangle can encourage movement
and improve strength and coordination in an affected arm.
If a patient is working on walking because their gait is
uneven or they shuffle their steps, I provide a steady, strong
beat, usually played on a drum, to help the patient entrain
their steps. I also sing a familiar song (e.g., The Battle Hymn
of the Republic) with a strong beat for motivation. Often the
person will not only be walking with even steps, he may also
be singing along.
Because singing and speaking use several similar
processes such as respiration, making speech-like sounds
and articulation, singing may improve speaking skills for
some. Many times a person with aphasia may not be able to
speak but can sing. This is because speech is processed and
produced primarily in the left side of the brain.
On the other hand, music is processed and produced
in multiple parts of the brain. Some of these overlap
with speech centers and some do not. A therapist can
stimulate and strengthen injured speech centers, or create
new connections around injured areas to potentially
help people speak again.
By Kyle Wilhelm, MA, MTBC | Marion, Iowa