Music Therapy Helps Some Regain Speech After Stroke

  • A story that can only be called "heartwarming" was recently published by The New York Times online. Titled, "At 60, He Learned to Sing So He Could Learn to Talk," the story is about how a man regained his ability to talk after a stroke - by singing.


    The story explains the brain hemispheres involved, but it's the singing that made the difference for this gentleman. My first thought, when I saw this headline, was how often we hear of singers - country singer Mel Tillis comes to mind - who stutter when they speak, yet when they sing, their words are totally fluid.


    My second reaction was to think of my dad. His dementia put him in all kinds of worlds that I could only attempt to decipher well enough so that I could partially join him. However, when I brought in Benny Goodman CDs, or those of other big band greats from my dad's youth, it nearly always helped his mood. Sometimes, the music would serve to bring him back to a better mental state, and when I would leave after my visit with him, he'd be drumming away on his lap, his CD player blaring.

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    Music has tremendous power. I've been reminded of this as I grocery shop. Normally, the store's background music goes unnoticed by me, as my mind whirls with the errands left to do.  I ignore it (or think I'm ignoring it). However, from time to time, the first few bars of a song from my own youth sneaks into my personal space. Those tiny hints of the melody to come will often drag up long suppressed emotion.  Often, I've fought unexplainable tears. Or smiles. For some reason, it's usually the former. I haven't felt a need to dreg up my past enough to figure out why that is so, but someday I might.


    Music therapy is used by some as a way to help elders in nursing homes adjust, or just plain have fun. It's even used as a way to "see someone off," who is dying. It's used to help children through good times and bad. It's been said that cows give more milk when one type of music, as opposed to another, is played in the dairy barn. And we've all been told that Mozart makes for smart kids (no I didn't aim speakers at my belly when I was pregnant, but I might have had I'd been told this at the time).


    So, why not music for helping stroke patients regain speaking skills? According to the New York Times story, "The technique, called melodic intonation therapy, was developed in 1973 by Dr. Martin Albert and colleagues at the Boston Veterans Affairs Hospital. The aim was to help patients with damage to Broca's area - the speaking center of the brain, located in its left hemisphere."


    At first, it seemed to me that if that's the case, why hasn't this approach been used more often? Then I think of my uncle, who had stroke induced aphasia (where the patient has problems finding the correct words and putting them together).


    My aunt, his wife and my mother's sister, was an opera singer when they met, as young adults. My now deceased uncle was the only person I've ever heard say he hated music. Not just opera, but music. The image of some poor speech therapist coaxing that stern retired military man to sing "happy birthday" to himself reminds me that one approach doesn't fit all.


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    However, it's a delight to know that it works for some. If a stroke patient has to "sing for his supper" rather than ask for it - why not? Eventually, he or she may be able to ask for it in a "normal" way, but prefer singing anyway. From my point of view, the world can always use another songbird.


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Published On: May 07, 2008