What is Melodic Intonation Therapy and How Does It Work?

How Music Is Becoming Medicine Used In Modern Speech Therapy

So What is Melodic Intonation Therapy?

Melody Is To Rhythm, as Tone is to Cadence 

Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) is the use of melodic and rhythmic techniques to assist in speech language therapy. A patient is taught to hum or sing words, thoughts, and phrases they have a difficult time remembering or articulating. Oftentimes, this is accompanied by the patient tapping out a rhythm simultaneously with their fingers or their toes. Typically, the patient is taught to speak in simplified, yet exaggerated ways. By using simple words with few syllables, they are able to create melodies that contain all the words, and therefore all of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions they wish to express.

When a patient undergoes Melodic Intonation Therapy, it has been shown to increase the number of words a patient is able to recall. This is caused by using parts of the brain (that are used less frequently) to articulate speech. By finding an alternative part of the mind to recall words, the patient is given a whole new neural pathway that allows them to circumvent the language center of the brain.

doctor looking at MRI
Scientists have figured out how to reroute speech functions to another part of the brain.

How Does Melodic Intonation Therapy Work?

Left Brain Versus Right Brain, and What’s the Difference?

The treatment itself is thought to be effective because the music and speech centers of the brain are separate hemispheres. The brain is the most complex biological structure in the human body. Depending on the person, the human brain can contain over 100 billion neurons and nearly 100 trillion neural connections. However, despite the enormous complexity of the brain itself, and the fact that it poses the greatest current challenge to the modern understanding of medicine, most people have heard about the “left-brain” or “right brain” stereotype. You know, the stereotype that breaks 100 billion neurons down into a much more digestible left hemisphere and right hemisphere. Those who are left hemisphere dominant are thought to be overly analytical and orderly, whereas those who are considered right brain dominant, are thought to be artistic and creative. 

There is actually some truth in the left brain, right brain theory. Neuroscientists have long recognized that, in general, the left hemisphere of the brain does the heavy lifting when it comes to spoken language and speech. Speech and language requires the ability to analyze, organize, recognize, and apply patterns. The analytical nature of learning a language is handled best by the analytical side of the brain. Luckily, the ability for the brain to process, create, and respond to music is handled by the right side of the brain. The creative and artistic nature of music and melody is handled by a completely separate portion of the brain. So when an individual has a disability, or injury, to the left hemisphere of their brain, the damaged speech portions can be circumvented by relying on the undamaged and healthy portions of the right hemisphere. 

Photo of different sections of brain
Psychiatry has made massive strides commensurate with the increases in the technology available. As such, they have actually begun to map what portion of the brain is responsible for what process. 

Who Should Receive Melodic Intonation Therapy? 

Absent Aphasia: There Isn’t Much Medicine to Administer

Doctors, physicians, and clinicians have long known of the association between music and the patient’s healing process. For over 100 years, doctors have noted that patients with speaking disabilities are capable of singing words that they can not speak. However, it was not until 1973 that a music-based treatment would be developed. Developed by Robert Sparks, Nancy Helm, and Martin Albert, a team of neurological researchers showed that aphasic patients that had severe, long-term, or stable speech defects showed success when undergoing a new language therapy treatment that stimulated the language capacity of the nondominant hemisphere of the brain. 

Or in other words, the right side of the brain was first recorded to show an ability to process language by processing it first as language. The study was groundbreaking at the time and future research has some additional promise. Doctors believe that they actually reduce their patients dependence on the left hemisphere of their brain for processing and using language.

Nonfluent aphasia is a condition where people understand what other people are saying to them, but have difficulty articulating and processing their own speech. These individuals respond well to melodic intonation therapy.  Expressive aphasia is a condition where people commonly speak in long, complex sentences, but often use words that don't make sense or include incoherent, incorrect or incomprehensible words. These individuals have also been shown to respond to melodic intonation therapy. 

People with this kind of aphasia don't usually understand spoken language. Oftentimes, they are completely unaware that other people can’t understand them. Finally, MIT has been shown to be an effective treatment for those suffering from Apraxia. This is a neurological condition that makes it difficult or impossible for the afflicted to make certain muscle movement despite their muscles being healthy. There is little evidence that MIT has been shown to work on children with apraxia.

Picture of ear
Melodic Intonation Therapy has been shown to help those who suffer from an inability to understand and articulate spoken language.

Melodic Intonation Therapy works by stimulating the healthy and high functioning musical sections of the right hemisphere of the brain. Those who suffer from any type of injuries to their left hemisphere, or those with a natural struggle with spoken language can benefit from the treatment. By allowing the right side of the brain to do the heavy lifting when it comes to articulating and processing thoughts and ideas, scientists and clinicians have found a way to help those who struggle with spoken language.

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 19, 2021

Anthony Stockton
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