It's amazing to see stroke survivors who've lost the ability to speak suddenly produce accurate words when singing familiar songs. This phenomenon was first reported by Swedish physician Olaf Dalin in 1736. Dr. Dalin described a young man who had lost his ability to talk as a result of brain damage, but who surprised townsfolk by singing hymns in church.

The acquired language disorder now called “aphasia” became a subject of clinical study and a target for rehabilitation beginning in the mid-1880s. Since that time, every clinician working with aphasia has seen individuals who can produce words only when singing. Indeed, this observation prompted American neurologist Charles Mills to suggest (in 1904!) that it might help to play the piano and encourage patients with aphasia to sing well-known songs.  

There appear to be psychological benefits, but singing familiar songs alone doesn’t seem to improve the speech of people with aphasia. This is probably because words that come automatically when singing are intricately linked to the melodies and are not easily separated. 

The spoken word is a different matter. We know the brain has difficulty starting in the middle of highly memorized spoken passages (such as the “Pledge of Allegiance”). We need a “running start” to prime the pump of recall. 

Songs themselves might be used to communicate. I had a patient who struggled to tell his son he wanted to go to a Boston Red Sox game. He finally got his point across by bursting forth with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Unfortunately, there aren’t appropriate songs for every communication need, so it would be better if singing could be used to unblock residual speech abilities. This was the motivation for the aphasia treatment approach known as “Melodic Intonation Therapy,” which we began to develop in 1972.


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