How Music Can Help MS

Beethoven and Mahler ease the MS symptoms of this musician

Patient Expert

Since birth, I have been surrounded by music. My parents were musicians and I became a musician as soon as I touched a piano. Music is a part of who I am.

Multiple sclerosis threatened to take the music away when it crippled my left hand shortly before diagnosis. In recital, I tripped through the Debussy Arabesque No. 1. At church, I created dissonance where there should have been harmony, At home, my Beethoven was weak and Liszt impossible. It took four long months of intensive hand therapy to reconnect neuro-synapses connecting my finger tips to my brain.

Physical therapy brought me back to music. For some people, music helps to bring them back to themselves.

Music therapy

Music can be used in a variety of ways to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. The field of music therapy focuses on the use of music interventions guided by a credentialed professional in an evidence-based fashion to achieve specific goals. During my student teaching semester in college, I observed the use of music therapeutic techniques in a special education class.

Common approaches in music therapy include creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music. Singing is one approach used during speech-language therapy to help patients who have difficulty forming words. Playing a musical instrument, such as piano, can help improve finger dexterity and hand strength. Simply listening to music can affect mood and self-esteem.

Music therapy in neurology

Music therapy can be effective when combined with rehabilitation. A recent literature review reveals that the vast majority of studies investigating music-based interventions in patients with neurologic disorders have been focused on their use in stroke patients, with only two out of 19 published studies included in the review that were focused on multiple sclerosis patients.

An approach called rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS) has been shown to be effective in improving gait and upper limb function in stroke patients. A small study in MS patients found that metronome-based RAS helped to improve walking speed and stride length. Another study found that motor imagery combined with music or metronome cues both significantly improved walking speed, distance, and cognitive fatigue in MS patients. However, physical fatigue and health-related quality of life improved only in the music-based group. Just think, turning up the music while you go on a walk might make it easier to get your daily steps in without feeling fatigued.

Music identity

Researchers in Brazil used musical autobiography as a therapeutic tool to help individuals define themselves. In the study, eight people with MS were asked to select 10 to 15 pieces of music that were significant to them in their lives. Based on interviews with the study participants, the selections were classified into one of four categories related to how the music connected to aspects of anindividual’s life. Authors found that recalling these preferred compositions activated affective memories; enabled participants to express themselves; improved body perception, feelings, and identities; and provided them with a coping strategy for living with MS.

In thinking of my own autobiographical playlist, I gravitate to music selections that I have actually performed as a professional musician or during music school. The physicality of creating music carries a special power and when I think of some of these pieces — such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which begins with an opening theme played in unison by the horn section that marches into the lowest, darkest depths of a most glorious horn sound that sets the stage for what is to come. Just replaying this piece in my head eclipses any thoughts of MS. It reminds me who I am.