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Singing Therapy for Aphasia: How to Recover Communication Skills

melodic intonation therapy for aphasia provides hope for recovery

After a stroke, about 20% of survivors experience a communication disorder called aphasia. It is characterized by difficulties producing or understanding language. Interestingly enough, individuals who cannot speak fluently, or at all, after stroke are often still able to sing. It’s suggested that participating in singing therapy for aphasia may help individuals develop their ability to speak again.

To help you understand how singing therapy may help individuals with aphasia regain their language skills, this article will discuss:

Which Part of the Brain is Affected by Aphasia?

illustration of left and right hemispheres of the brain to explain why singing therapy for aphasia works

Before we discuss how singing therapy can help individuals with aphasia recover their communication skills, it’s important to understand some brain anatomy.

Speech and language skills are generally regulated by the left hemisphere of the brain. Therefore, when an individual has a stroke in the left hemisphere of the brain, they may experience aphasia.

Two of the most common types of aphasia that may occur after stroke are Broca’s aphasia and Wernicke’s aphasia. Individuals with Broca’s aphasia (also known as expressive or non-fluent aphasia) struggle to produce language. For example, they may experience difficulties forming sentences or finding the right words to say.

In contrast, individuals with Wernicke’s aphasia (also known as receptive or fluent aphasia) struggle to understand language. For example, they may produce incoherent sentences or be unable to follow a conversation.

Depending on the severity of the stroke, aphasia may completely impair the ability to speak at all. Luckily, even if you can’t speak after stroke, you might still be able to sing your words. That’s because singing uses the more creative right side of the brain, while speaking is a left-brain function. This creates a window of opportunity where you can relearn how to communicate by engaging the right hemisphere of the brain.

The following section will discuss what singing therapy for aphasia involves.

What is Singing Therapy for Aphasia?

Singing therapy, also known as melodic intonation therapy (MIT), involves utilizing elements of singing such as rhythm and pitch to encourage the recovery of speech and language skills.

It is guided by a trained specialist, usually a speech-language pathologist, who will evaluate your communication skills and determine which singing exercises are appropriate for you. These “singing” exercises will activate the right hemisphere of the brain. Gradually, you should develop the ability to sing the words you wish to say and eventually transition into speaking them.

Melodic intonation therapy engages the right hemisphere of the brain in various ways that are not typically engaged in therapies that do not utilize pitch or melody, including:

  • Slowing down the pace. Singing involves articulating words at a slower rate than speaking.
  • Lengthening the syllables. Singing involves lengthening each syllable, which allows the individual to recognize the oral motor patterns involved while hearing the different sounds that distinguish one word from another. Slowing down the pace and lengthening each syllable help break down words and phrases.
  • Grouping syllables. Emphasizing intonation (changes in pitch) helps individuals understand which syllables in a word need to be stressed. This also encourages them to group syllables into words and words into sentences or phrases.
  • Tapping of the left hand. Movements on the left side of the body are controlled by the right side of the brain. Tapping the left hand along to each syllable helps further engage the right hemisphere of the brain. It also encourages the individual to pace themselves as they sing, which improves fluency.

Check out the video below to see melodic intonation therapy in action:

Now that you understand the various processes involved in singing therapy for aphasia, let’s discuss the underlying mechanism that makes it an effective form of treatment.

Why Singing Therapy for Aphasia Works

To overcome aphasia and regain your communication skills, you must promote the brain’s ability to make adaptive changes, neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity allows your brain to rewire functions affected by stroke to healthy, unaffected regions of the brain.

The best way to promote neuroplasticity is through repetition. Task-specific and highly repetitive practice reinforces demand for that function in the brain, which encourages neuroadaptive changes.

Singing therapy for aphasia is effective because it encourages individuals to repetitively practice their language skills while engaging the right hemisphere of the brain. This may help promote the carryover of language skills to the right side of the brain.

Additionally, consistently training individuals to use common phrases can help those with Broca’s aphasia compensate for difficulties forming sentences or finding the right words to say.

Ultimately, singing therapy serves as an engaging form of speech therapy that encourages individuals to repetitively practice singing the words they want to say. The more they practice, the stronger new neural connections for language functions should become. Over time, sung words may be able to transition into spoken words.

Singing Therapy for Aphasia: Key Points

Singing therapy can serve as an effective form of treatment for aphasia after stroke because it promotes the brain’s ability to reorganize its neural circuitry and make adaptive changes called neuroplasticity.

The language centers of the brain are located in the left hemisphere of the brain while singing is regulated by the right. Singing therapy encourages individuals to engage the right side of the brain by singing their words instead of speaking them.

We hope this article helped you understand how singing therapy can help individuals with aphasia recover their communication skills.  

featured images: iStock/eggeeggjiew/Jolygon

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