Music therapy

Music is processed in all parts of the brain (Sacks, 2007). For someone who has had a brain injury, music may be helpful in providing cognitive stimulation, motivation for movement, and emotional and/or spiritual support.

Remember: Brain injury is complex: every situation is different. This means that everyone will respond differently to music & music therapy. Please speak with your physician and the nearest music therapy association for information most relevant to you.

Neurologic music therapy (NMT)

In some cases, neurologic music therapy (NMT) may be helpful as a rehabilitation and recovery tool. Neurologic music therapy is a specific training focused on the use of music and musical elements to motivate and target change (neuroplasticity). It is often used in connection with specific goals that an individual, general practitioner, and/or multi-disciplinary team have identified. These goals could be related to physical movement, communication, cognition, or emotions.

Here are some examples of how neurologic music therapy can be used for different types of goals.

Music therapy & physical independence

If an individual wants to improve their uneven gait (how they walk), live music can be used to motivate them to take more coordinated/even steps. Rhythmic music and different chord progressions engage with the motor cortex of the brain (Alashram et al, 2019). It’s similar to people wanting to dance to certain beats and rhythms.

As an individual improves their gait pattern, the music is gradually taken away. Eventually the goal is for the person to be able to show improved gait without the music.

This same process is applied to most goals associated with activities of daily living (ADLs).

Music therapy & improving speech

Music can be used by individuals who want to improve their speech clarity, tone and/or volume. A neurologic music therapist will use techniques to encourage lip movement; improve soft palette sounds; strengthen diaphragmatic breathing; and improve pitch and volume control.

It’s not about getting the perfect note or singing voice; it’s about using music as an enjoyable and engaging medium to help with speech. The added benefit is that singing is fun and can help build a person’s confidence as they practice.

The music is then taken away with the goal of having the skills carry over in everyday communication.

Music therapy & cognition

For an individual who wants to improve their visual neglect and/or attention span, a neurologic music therapist may apply techniques to target change for these specific goals.

For example, if someone wants to improve their visual neglect, the use of music scales and chord sequences may be used as an auditory prompt to remind someone to look towards their neglected side. If someone wants to improve their attention, a certified music therapist may use different music therapy interventions to prolong attention or practice divided attention.

Music for mental health & well-being

Music is a part of the human experience that tracks back to prehistoric times. Music forms part of an individual’s identity. People listen to music to relax, to exercise, to process emotion, and to spiritually connect. Music can also be associated with powerful memories.

When choosing music, it’s important to ask the following questions:

  • What kind of music do you prefer?
  • What music is familiar?
  • What did you listen to growing up?
  • What music connects to which emotions?
  • What music reminds you of specific memories?

When chosen thoughtfully, music can improve mood and support mental health and well-being.

Accessing music

There are many ways to access music. Many people have existing music collections – this can include records, CDs, or digital downloads.

Some additional examples of accessible music resources include:

  • CDs at the library
  • Spotify/Apple music playlists (precomposed or customized). Please note these are paid platforms
  • YouTube playlists (precomposed or customized)
  • Local performances within your community

More information about music therapy


Alashram, A.R., Annino, G., & Mercuri, N. B. (2019). Rhythmic auditory stimulation in gait rehabili-tation for traumatic brain and spinal cord injury. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, 69, 287-288. doi: 10.1016/j.jocn.2019.08.080

Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Content for this page provided in part by Bernice Chu, MA, NMT-F, MTA. Bernice is a certified music therapist currently working with adults who have experienced brain injuries, burns, trauma and long-standing mental health needs. She is the secretary for the Music Therapy Association for British Columbia.