Music therapy has been practiced for decades as a way to treat neurological conditions from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's to anxiety and depression. Now, advances in neuroscience and brain imaging are revealing what's actually happening in the brain as patients listen to music or play instruments and why the therapy works. "It's been substantiated only in the last year or two that music therapy can help restore the loss of expressive language in patients with aphasia" following brain injury from stroke, says Oliver Sacks, the noted neurologist and professor at Columbia University, who explored the link between music and the brain in his recent book Musicophilia. Beyond improving movement and speech, he says, music can trigger the release of mood-altering brain chemicals and once-lost memories and emotions.
Actually playing music, which requires coordinating muscle movements and developing an ear for timing, can also bring dramatic results, says Rick Bausman, a musician and the founder and director of the Martha's Vineyard-based Drum Workshop. The workshop uses traditional drum ensembles, in which groups of participants play percussion pieces, as one form of therapy for patients with a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities, including Parkinson's disease. Bausman teaches participants to play along with traditional Afro-Caribbean beats like the Haitian kongo and Cuban bembe using congas, bongos, and djun-djun drums. "Participants report that their control of physical movement improves after playing the drums, their motion becomes more fluid, they don't shake quite as much, and their tremors seem to calm down," says Bausman.
Because the area of the brain that processes music overlaps with speech networks, neurologists have found that a technique called melodic intonation therapy is effective at retraining patients to speak by transferring existing neuronal pathways or creating new ones. "Even after a stroke that damages the left side of the brain—the center of speech—some patients can still sing complete lyrics to songs," says Tomaino. With repetition, the therapist can begin removing the music, allowing the patient to speak the song lyrics and eventually substitute regular phrases in their place