5 Part Series – Music and Speech

Why does music make speech so accessible? Why are there so many stories about nonverbal clients (aphasic, apraxic, stroke victims, autistic, etc.) singing when they can’t speak a word? Why is Music Therapy so valuable to those who have difficulty with spoken language? Why is Music Therapy such a value to the autistic community?

Although I am not a speech therapist, I see progress in speech more than any other area within the population with which I work. Some of the verbal reactions I witness in Music Therapy would be considered unbelievable by others. This has forced me to research science behind this.

First, lets begin with what we all know. Music and art are strong motivational tools that reward our brains and bodies and help us to concentrate. Music, a non-pharmaceutical like physical exercise, does what dopamine does for us. Music makes us feel good and energized. It feeds the brain with self-benefit and drive, therefore leaving a need for music-based engineering to renovate verbal connections.

It has been proven that those who make a practice of study in music training have shown plasticity in the brain. Likenesses have also been compared to those who practice, or study, languages or juggling. What can one conclude from this? Well, we know from experience that  rhythm flow influences our motor systems. Just watch the unconscious foot-tapping of those in a room with lively music. It is proven that musical rhythm enhances and elicits auditory/motor linguistic mapping. Studies have proven that perceiving music influences, initiates, and coordinates our motor systems and their reaction to the beat. George Balanchine stated, “Dance is music made visible.”

The main areas of the brain that neurologists observe when studying language and the brain are Wernecke’s Area and Broca’s Area. Wernecke’s is associated with comprehension and Broca’s with speech production. There is a neural pathway connecting frontal motor planning and speech centers with comprehension and auditory feedback called acurate fasiculus. Other areas, such as the cerebellum and motor cortex, coordinate movement and are directly linked to pods of neurons held accountable for sound production.

As one can conclude, music processes and influences many areas of the brain, especially those associated with language and motor functioning. If we think about it, in order to produce individual sounds, oral coordination is necessary. Motor planning for speech is extremely important, and articulation is really only vocal behavior.

Typically developing infants develop speech spontaneously without training. They “play” with sounds and babble before they speak their first word. Individuals with autism often use language in the opposite way. Individuals with autism, and some with auditory processing disorders, often use consciously memorized language. After gaining an understanding of a linguistical motif, the motif may be ceaselessly repeated to make a point. An example of this would be echohalic language. Adults learning a second language may also learn this way. This conscious learning takes much more effort and produces minimally comprehensive results. Applying music, a tool with a natural autonomic feel-good response to language increases the right-hemispheric ability of the brain to act as a linguistic converter, rejoining language to the left hemisphere of the brain; in effect, balancing the brain in motion. In other words, musically playing with sound, much like a typically developing infant does, inaugurates function all over the brain with much less stress and effort than learning language alone. The motion of rhythm can act as a motor aid to all those movements that help coordinate speech. Very often, my most severely nonverbal autistic clients will jump and/or handflap preceding speech or sound. Sometimes this appears to be done purposefully, and at other times it appears to be automatic. The foremost prelingual behaviors include awareness (https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2012/10/5-part-seriesmusic-therapy-from-attentiveness-to-functional-skill-and-optimal-health/, https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2012/10/autism-the-key-to-self-regulation-and-engagement/), eye contact, joint attention, and behavioral self-regulation. Recent brain studies among typical and autistic children have concluded that when listening to music (pure music, or that without lyrics), both neurotypical and autistic children showed brain activation on both the right and left side of Wernecke’s Area (comprehension) of the brain, and on the right side of Broca’s Area (speech production). However, only the brains of autistic children displayed activity on the left side of Broca’s Area. Typically, in autistic individuals, this part of Broca’s Area displays little brain activity for language alone, but music has the opposite effect. Thus, autistic brain activity displays musical preferences to travel for language. It may be possible, then, for dysfunctional and underdeveloped language areas to be regenerated to work for music.

Science alone is only fact, theory, or study. Relationship is what makes the biggest difference in almost any aspect of life. Music does not only affect motor and language responses, but also has a tremendous emotional component. Although it may be difficult to display, read, or understand an autistic individual’s emotions, they are human, like us all, and are emotional beings. Musical-based interventions influencing interaction in a trusting, predictable, therapeutic relationship eases the transition to language and strengthens connections in autistic individuals. The relationship between therapist, music, and client is the most important ingredient and has the strongest impact.

After recently reading articles in Cutting-Edge Therapies for Autism by Ken Siri and Tony Lyons, I wanted to write about an area in Music Therapy that I deal with often, and the science behind it.The following books were also consulted:

  • This is Your Brain on Music – Daniel J. Levitin
  • Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks
  • Helping Children with Autism Learn – Bryna Siegel, Ph.D.

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC



An interesting read. Thank you for sharing. I have seen how some children in speech therapy have responded favourably when melody has accompanied speech. Melodic intonation therapy would support this.


Thank you for this post. I’ve had a fascination with music and brain processes for years. The first two books on your suggested reading list are two of my favorite books! I had the great opportunity to teach viola to an autistic student for many years, and he was able to be very expressive through his playing – leading to tears at almost every recital!! Although I never took the courses, I think my heart is in music therapy – thank you for your work.

Ryan Judd

Hi Antoinette, that is a great post. I especially love how you tie it all together at the end by emphasizing that shared musical experiences build the therapeutic relationship. Thanks for sharing!



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