Music clearly has an effect on people. It can alternately soothe or irritate and it can inspire everyone from children to adults to get up and move. But might it also enable brain-damaged patients to learn to talk again?
Although it is still a new field of medicine, music-based therapy is showing great promise, particularly a treatment called melodic intonation therapy (MIT).
Interest and awareness of the treatment increased after it was revealed that U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was undergoing MIT to relearn how to speak. Giffords was shot in the head at an event in Tuscon, Arizona on January 8, 2011, with the bullet entering and exiting on the left side. Her injury was catastrophic, but not fatal (had it crossed hemispheres and done any damage to the right side her prognosis could have been very different). The bullet wiped out her Broca’s area, a major language centre in the left hemisphere of the brain.
Once she was able, Giffords began undergoing melodic intonation therapy with a music therapist at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston, Texas. She continues to work on her overall rehabilitation and has made considerable progress with her speech therapy.
Using a combination of rhythm and melody, as well as visual cues, the therapy manages to engage the brain to sing words it cannot say. Researchers have been aware for years that patients who had lost the ability to speak or comprehend language (a condition known as aphasia) were still able to sing, but only in the 1970s was melodic intonation therapy developed.
The theory behind the therapy is that through music, patients can access their stored knowledge about words, and through song are able to create new connections for speech. One difference between this and other speech therapies is that patients are better able to regain natural speech intonation patterns.
Researchers continue to explore how this music-based therapy works and what makes it effective. While music was once thought to be superfluous, more and more studies are revealing its unique influence in our lives.
For instance, researchers at McMaster University have discovered that very early musical training benefit children even before they can walk or talk.
They found that one-year-old babies who participate in interactive music classes with their parents smile more, communicate better and show earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music. The findings were published recently in the scientific journals Developmental Science and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
 Norton, Andrea, et al. (2009) “Melodic Intonation Therapy: Shared Insights on How it is Done and Why it Might Help.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Accessed at: