How singing reverses neurological problems with speech



How singing reverses neurological problems with speech

Imagine your every interaction is like this: you know exactly what you want to say, but when it comes to saying it, your lips just can’t find the words.

This is the reality for people with chronic speech impairing disorders, such as aphasia stuttering. While people may know what they want to say, there is a problem somewhere in their brain that interferes with the process of forming the words, and results in a frustrating disconnect between brain and mouth.

But with these issues comes a baffling phenomenon: when these people open their mouths to sing, their disorder seemingly completely disappears.

The Australian branch of the popular television program The Voice has broadcast many neurological success stories, showcasing the deeply complicated nature of the brain through various show favourites, such as Season 2’s Harrison Craig and Season 5’s Adam Ladell. Craig had a severe stutter, and Ladell was plagued by random and uncontrollable movements and sounds from his Tourette’s syndrome. However, whenever these two contestants began to sing, all their various speech issues disappeared.

How does stuttering disappear with singing?

Many labs from all over the world have attempted to investigate the mechanics behind the phenomenon, with results consistently seeing vocal training as a method to temporarily, and sometimes in the longer-term, improve fluency in those living with various speech-related neurological impairments.

The effects of singing on temporarily alleviating or improving stutters is well-documented, with accounts dating back to the late 1920s. A 1982 study by researchers at the University of New South Wales saw a 90% reduction in stuttering following 10 minutes of singing, which they attributed to an increase in phonation duration. The exact cause of stuttering itself is unknown; however, is thought to be the result of hyperactivity in the motor system with dominance from the brain’s right hemisphere, when speech is normally controlled by the left hemisphere.

The treatment of non-fluent aphasia (being unable to speak fluently) in stroke victims through singing has yielded similar results to that of stuttering, showing consistent improvement in word production while singing. Coined ‘melodic intonation therapy’ (MIT) by Albert, Sparks, and Helm-Estabrooks in the 1970s, MIT is a technique which uses singing, melody and syllable tapping to improve speech fluency of those with aphasia. In a 2014 study by Schlaug and his group at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, it was found that out of the study group with aphasia (11 treated with MIT, 9 not treated), those receiving MIT were able to produce twice the number of appropriate words per minute in response to a question compared to those who were untreated.

The success behind MIT and similar therapies is thought to rest in what is known as ‘cerebral dominance’, or the unilateral control of certain functions in the brain. Speaking almost exclusively uses regions in the left hemisphere, which explains why out of 100 people with aphasia, about 97 will have damage to the left hemisphere. Comparatively, singing engages the right hemisphere, and is therefore thought to play a compensatory role, relieving the physiological effects of the damage to the left hemisphere, allowing fluency where there were fluency issues before. However, this is an unproven hypothesis and the subject remains controversial. 

Long-term benefit of singing

The exact neurological functions behind the temporary alleviation of speech-impairing conditions when singing are still unknown, and there needs to be more research to investigate the neurological mechanisms behind the phenomenon.

So do people living with aphasia and stutter have to be constantly singing to communicate? With consistent musical therapy, the answer is generally no. Research has shown consistent sessions of MIT over months and even years can drastically improve fluency, and the question now is why, and how? With an increase in research in this field, the answers to these questions will hopefully eventually become clear. Until then, singing may be the path to fluency for many victims of neurologically-based speech impairments.


Last updated:
9 November 2018