Stroke Awareness Month

May is National Stroke Awareness Month. At the Star Center, we are passionate about helping people find their new normal after a stroke.  Recovery is often a long and frustrating journey, and we want people to know that they are not alone during that process. Music Therapy can be an effective treatment to drive recovery and to help people retrain their brain for speech and motor skills.

Understand the Emotional State

Suffering a stroke is a traumatic experience. After such an injury to the brain, people are often left without abilities that they once had. It’s only natural to feel isolated or depressed after suffering a stroke.  You can’t engage with people or activities like you used to. Who wouldn’t have a hard time with that?

I have seen firsthand the profound impact someone’s emotional state has on their ability to regain skills. Many of our clients come to us feeling depressed or frustrated. I know that until they feel motivation or encouragement, any progress will be difficult. Because of this, one of the first things we do is use their musical preferences to shape treatment. We play the styles and songs they love to bring joy. Our clients find reassurance in hearing the music they love. Even though everything else is different after a stroke, they can still experience music in the same way. Stabilizing a client’s emotional state is the first step to creating a good foundation to get work done.

Identify Measurable Goals

Music Therapy is, simply put, using music to achieve non-musical goals. The most common goals in stroke recovery are motor skills and language. I try to make some success obvious during the initial assessment. All this goes back to motivation. The faster someone sees results, the more motivated they are to continue striving towards recovery. Once I was working with a man in his 50s. During the assessment, we chose the song “My Girl” by The Temptations. I started playing and singing, “I’ve got sunshine… On a cloudy…” “DAY!” the man sang. It was an immediate encouragement for him to hear his own voice. He wanted to sing a particular word and his brain, mouth, and vocal cords cooperated for the first time since his stroke. Seeing this success was a huge motivator and encouragement for him early on in the recovery process.

Rhythm Drives Motor Skills

When someone suffers a stroke, they lose skills because pathways in the brain have been damaged or destroyed altogether. Music is a proven and powerful tool to create new pathways in the brain so that someone can regain the skills they have lost. When someone is having trouble with motor skills, we use rhythm to prompt and coordinate movement. One method we use for rehabilitating walking is called Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS). Over time, someone can learn to consistently initiate the movement with the aid of RAS and retrain their brain to communicate with other parts of the body.

Melody Drives Language

When language is the goal in stroke recovery, we use melody to create new pathways in the brain. This works because of magic. Just kidding. This works because language and melody a shared network in the brain. Even after a stroke, the pathway for melody may still be intact. We use these melody-focused pathways to reinforce circuits for language.

Generalize Skills

Once people are able to use language or motor skills aided by the elements of music, the next step is to access the same abilities without any music. This step is called generalization. For motor skills, it’s all about continuing to do the task while the rhythm is faded by introducing it at wider intervals. For language, we move from singing (melody) to chanting (rhythm) to speaking.

The Role of the Therapist

Using the elements of music in such a specific way requires a trained professional to lead music therapy. I find that music therapists are uniquely equipped with the knowledge base and emotional resources to navigate the complex field of stroke recovery. I have found myself starting so many sentences with “I know you know this, but…” Presuming Competence is a major part of the human character of music therapy. In stroke recovery, I know I that I am here to teach one thing, but the client is doing the hard work of recovery. I am their cheerleader who reassures them, “Your brain is what is different. We just need to get it back on track with your body.” Approaching therapy in this way empowers people when they may otherwise feel helpless.

If you know someone who might need help recovering from a stroke, please get in touch with us. You can call us at 731-668-3888 or email us at



About the Author : Chrissy Watson

NOTE: This person is a past employee or intern of the STAR Center. Their name and authorship is preserved for posterity. Chrissy Watson was the Clinical Internship Director at Star Center, Inc. A graduate of the University of Kansas, Chrissy became a board-certified music therapist in 2007 following her internship at The Institute for Research and Rehabilitation in Houston, TX. For the last 10 years, Chrissy has enjoyed working with a variety of populations in both North Carolina and Tennessee. Since coming to Star in 2012, Chrissy has facilitated the growth of the department to 4 full-time staff and continues to oversee the supervision of interns who come to Jackson from around the country. With a passion for forwarding the profession of Music Therapy through research, advocacy, and training of the next generation of therapists, Chrissy completed certification in Neurologic Music Therapy in 2014, is currently working to complete her Master of Music Therapy degree from Colorado State University, and serves on the TN State Task Force, the national Association Internship Approval Committee (AIAC), and continues to present at both regional and national conferences. Outside of work, Chrissy is fanatical about church, baking, reading, theater, and KU basketball and secretly hopes for snow in the middle of summer.

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