Music Makes Miracles

Music therapy plays an integral part in the recovery of Gabrielle Giffords
  • Photo: Courtesy of Gabrielle Giffords' office
    Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in September 2009
  • Photo: Elissa Bateman Martin with Cheek Photography
    Maegan Morrow
May 12, 2011 -- 11:48 am PDT
By Laurel Fishman /

As a further testament to the power of music, music therapy is playing an important part in the extraordinary recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who suffered a life-threatening head wound last January during a shooting in Tuscon, Ariz., in which six people were killed and 12 others were wounded.

The congresswoman not only survived a bullet through her brain, but she also is now surprising family, friends and doctors on her road to recovery, and music therapy has been an integral part of that path.

While many of the details of Giffords' treatment remain confidential, at Houston-based TIRR Memorial Hermann, Giffords' music therapist Maegan Morrow has acknowledged using multiple state-of-the art interventions, focusing on neurologic music therapy, an application of music to cognitive, sensory and motor function due to neurologic disease of the human nervous system.

NMT's successful application in the Giffords case has sparked international interest, and Morrow is fulfilling her dream to "help people through music."

Morrow studied music therapy at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. It was there that she started learning about NMT and the groundbreaking work of Dr. Michael Thaut, professor of music and neuroscience and director of Colorado State University's Center for Biomedical Research in Music.

Morrow began practicing music therapy in Austin, treating patients with Alzheimer's disease, autism, special needs, and mental disorders. When her services were contracted by a post-traumatic brain injury center, she could see the effectiveness of specific NMT on patients. Refined through her participation in Thaut's more advanced training, these methods eventually formed the basis of Morrow's work with Giffords.

"Language is on the left side of the brain," Morrow explains. "I'm accessing other parts of the brain to get language out through a song."

In working to restore speech function, music speech stimulation primes the pathways for speech and language by having patients sing songs that are familiar to them. "It's not a sing-along," says Morrow. "I start the song and let them fill in the phrases."

In this word-retrieval process, Morrow says it's important to use music that patients enjoyed when they were young. "Those songs will follow you forever," she says. For Giffords, Don McLean's "American Pie" is a favorite, and the congresswoman can sing it with excellent recall.

Morrow also uses melodic intonation therapy, a process stimulating activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, in order to assist in speech production.

"It's a strict protocol," says Morrow. "You have to be consistent on the melody."

With MIT, everyday words and phrases are turned into melodic phrases that mimic typical speech intonations and the rhythmic patterns of real-life speaking, using normal speech contours.

Both Morrow and Concetta Tomaino, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, point out how these neuroscience-based models and evidence-based practices of music therapy are substantiated by brain-imaging technology. Through CT scans and MRIs, says Morrow, "I've seen the areas of the brain that light up," and "how and where the brain is being affected."

The truly stunning visuals showcasing music therapy's transformational power are those on video recordings that Tomaino and her fellow music therapists have made of their patients.

One segment depicts a retired woman who doesn't know she is in the dining room of a skilled nursing facility and believes she's still at her job. She's unable to remember moment to moment or recognize Tomaino, whom she's met dozens of times. Yet when Tomaino plays accordion for her, the patient flawlessly sings the popular standard "Once In A While." The song is only one of hundreds her mind continues to retain.

One of Tomaino's other patients is a World War II veteran who can't stand without assistance. When he hears music from his young days, he rises from his chair — despite having dementia and severe arthritis — and the memory of moving to music empowers him to dance around a room he can't walk across by himself.

Alicia Clair, a University of Kansas professor and director of music education and music therapy, filmed an unresponsive elderly man. He stares blankly into space until music from the time he courted his wife begins playing. His wife opens her arms, and he holds her close. They dance cheek to cheek as they did in ballrooms long ago. When the music is over, he walks away from his wife, who is again a stranger.

While the circumstances are different, these examples shine a light on the potential healing powers of music therapy similar to Giffords' case. In addition to "American Pie," she has lip-synced "Happy Birthday To You" via videotape for her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly.

Given her successful strides, last month doctors pronounced Giffords medically able to witness her husband and fellow astronauts launch the space shuttle Endeavour, an event that has been rescheduled for May 16 in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Fittingly, Giffords was recently named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, honored with a profile written by President Barack Obama. Obama praised Gifford's qualities of "hard work and fair play, hope and resilience, a willingness to listen and a determination to do [her] best in a busy world."

While Giffords stays determined on her remarkable path to recovery, a greater number of people worldwide will continue to learn about the promise of music therapy.

(Laurel Fishman is a writer and editor specializing in entertainment media. She reports regularly for and GRAMMY magazine, and she is an advocate for the benefits of music making, music listening, music education, music therapy, and music-and-the-brain research.)

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