These Tunes Were Made for Walking (and Talking)-- At Least When Music Therapy’s Involved

Physical rehabilitation centers are using music therapy to help patients get back on their feet.

For most of us, music plays a huge role in our lives. It lifts us up when we’re feeling down, it reflects our happiness in our best moments, it brings us comfort and moves us emotionally-- and research shows that it can actually help patients in rehabilitation programs, too. As more and more rehabilitation centers and hospitals put music therapy programs in place, it becomes increasingly clear that these programs can be excellent tools for helping patients in rehab going through physical or speech therapy. Institutions like the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital have seen great improvement in their rehab patients who pair physical or speech therapy with music therapy.

But how does this work? It might be hard to believe that something as universal as music can have real effects on someone’s ability to walk or speak, but the results are plain to see-- music therapy helps with rehabilitation. In order to understand how it manages that, though, we have to start by figuring out how music interacts with the human brain and what the effects of those neurological interactions are.

How Does Music Affect the Brain?

Blue waves on a black background
Music interacts with the brain in complicated ways. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

In order to understand how music can affect your physical well-being or capacity to speak and communicate, first it’s important to understand how music goes from a series of soundwaves outside of your body to an electrical stimulus that can cause different physical effects.

The way in which the human brain processes music is complicated and hinges on a whole lot of moving parts. Music travels through the air in a series of compressions and rarefactions called soundwaves. Your ear is designed to “collect” as many of these soundwaves as possible and funnel them to your inner ear, where they are converted into electrical signals that travel to the rest of your brain via the auditory nerve.

Once those soundwaves are converted to electrical signals, they stimulate several parts of the human brain that work together to create our experience of music. The auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobe, first breaks down the pitch, rhythm, and tempo of music. Several parts of the cerebrum help you call to mind memories associated with the sounds that your auditory cortex has interpreted. And music also stimulates the limbic system, which causes you to respond emotionally to the music you listen to. The different functions of all of these parts of the brain can manifest in physical ways, too-- meaning that the music that stimulates them can also affect the listener’s physical well-being.

Music and Movement Can Help with Rehabilitation

A girl dancing
Music therapy can help patients in physical therapy. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Music has a tendency to move people-- not just emotionally, but physically. If you’ve ever watched a musician play their instrument in person, you’ve probably noticed that they move as they play. A live orchestra is a sea of movement as each person sways back and forth or from side to side with the music that they themselves are playing. Marching bands have to internalize the rhythm that they march to in order to perform their art. Dancers manage to fit themselves perfectly into the flow and rhythm of whatever music they’re performing to. Even if you’re no performer yourself, the chances are high that at some point or another, you’ve found yourself nodding along to a song on the radio, tapping your foot in time to the tempo, dancing alone in your room, or tapping out a rhythm with your fingers.

Music makes us move, and it’s no accident. When music stimulates the auditory cortex, it also stimulates the cerebellum, which is responsible for coordinating movement. When the cerebellum is stimulated by music, we have the impulse to move in time with it-- and that impulse can manifest through dancing, marching, nodding along, or tapping fingers or feet.

For patients undergoing physical rehabilitation, music therapy’s ability to stimulate the cerebellum can be incredibly helpful. The impulse to move in response to music is already there-- by channeling that impulse into accomplishing a physical therapy goal, like learning to walk or to move their hands, patients can strengthen the connection between their cerebellum and the movement of their limbs.

When patients move in a specific way as a response to music often enough, those movements become habit and stop requiring active thought. This is similar to what happens when musicians learn to play instruments themselves-- after enough practice, they become fully accustomed to what movement corresponds to what sound and what effect, and playing music becomes instinctive rather than an activity that requires constant concentration and guesswork. Of course, the goal of physical rehab is to be able to move instinctively-- so the fact that music therapy can be very effective in helping patients turn a difficult process like walking into something habitual is extremely valuable information to have.

Music and Speech for Rehabilitation

A small group of people smiling and talking
Research suggests that music therapy can help people develop or redevelop communication skills. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Music can also be useful in efforts to help patients recover their ability to speak. The same way human beings have an impulse to move to rhythmic sounds, they also have a tendency to imitate sounds that they hear-- whether those sounds be music or regular speech. Vocal imitation of external sounds isn’t exactly the same thing as learning to speak again-- it’s considered more of a cognitive skill than a communication skill. But it is largely possible through the stimulation of the cerebellum, which helps coordinate the movements of vocal cords as well as of physical movement. As a result, simply humming along to a song in music therapy can help struggling patients learn how to control the pitch, inflection, and emotion of their voices-- even if they aren’t actually speaking.

However, music therapy does also help with the actual communication skill of speech, too. In order to effectively communicate, people need to be able to understand what’s being said to them, call to mind information that’s relevant to the conversation, and then coordinate their voices to convey that information. In addition to music therapy helping patients learn to coordinate their voices to imitate sounds, it can also help strengthen connections between the auditory cortex, the cerebrum, and the cerebellum. When these connections are strengthened, it’s easier for people to take the information called to mind by the cerebrum and verbally convey that information-- allowing patients who have lost the ability to speak to slowly regain it.

Music Therapy Moving Forward-- Including Rehab

An assortment of musical instruments hanging up on a wall
Music therapy is a rapidly-developing field of study. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

As the field of music therapy continues to develop, scientists keep uncovering more ways that it can be beneficial to people on all walks of life, struggling through challenges of all sorts. The way that music interacts with the human brain is complex. However, by researching its effects on different parts of the brain in addition to how those parts of the brain affect human behavior, health, and emotions, we can start to understand just how far-reaching the benefits of music therapy might truly be. By strengthening the connections between the auditory cortex, cerebrum, and cerebellum, music therapy can help rehabilitation patients redevelop their ability to speak or learn to walk again.

Skyler Watkins
Skyler Watkins is an aspiring author and editor located in Columbus, Ohio.
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