Nov. 13, 2000 -- Sara Cowell was born 12 weeks early, and weighed just 2 1/2
pounds. Thought to have suffered from brain damage, as a baby she neither cried
for her mother nor responded to the voices of others. And as she grew into a
toddler she failed to learn to speak and was terrified of people she didn't
know. By the time she was 3, doctors had diagnosed her as having significant
But while Sara (not her real name) had a lot of trouble with words, she
loved to sing out sounds around the house, and in fact seemed to have perfect
pitch. And since she wasn't making much progress in speech therapy, her parents
asked about music therapy. Their speech therapist suggested they give it a
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Soon Melinda Mansfield, MMT, MT-BC, was visiting Sara at her home, where the
two played classical music and blew bubbles. They would sit together on the
floor, each with a drum; Mansfield would bang out a rhythm on the drum and get
Sara to play with her. Sometimes, she would sing to Sara, stopping before the
last word in the verse. Quietly, with no one looking at her, Sara would sing
the last word.
"Melinda slowly and methodically drew her out -- getting her to have fun
with people," says Sara's mother, Karen.
Music turned out to be the way into Sara's world. It helped a child who
previously couldn't express herself through language learn that words had
meaning and that she could use them to communicate.
Long recognized as a powerful means of stirring emotion and easing
communication, music therapy is today gaining wider use. Not only is it helping
children like Sara learn to express themselves, it's also soothing the pain of
mothers delivering babies, easing communication with depressed and anxious
patients, and helping stroke victims relearn language. And the more researchers
learn about the workings of the brain, the more they are encouraged that music
can be harnessed to assist in patient recovery.
Rhythms of the Brain
"Neurologic music therapy is effective," says Michael Thaut, PhD, a
professor of neuroscience and music and music therapy at Colorado State
University. "I've seen the data and it works." Thaut is using rhythm to
help stroke and Parkinson's disease patients retrain their ability to control
their arms and legs. "The evidence suggests that we will also see
applications of music to retraining attention and memory," he says.
Scientists say they have a lot to learn about why children like Sara respond
so well to music therapy. However, what they know so far of the flexibility of
the brain has them excited about the prospects.
It appears that the pattern of connections in the brain is continually
changing, says Joseph Arezzo, PhD, a professor of neuroscience and neurology at
the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. These changes are in large
part thought to be driven by the brain activity itself.