Listening to music helps recovery of stroke patients by ‘stimulating their brain’

By | March 7, 2020

Listening to music and playing instruments helps stroke patients recover by ‘stimulating their brain and lifting their mood’

  • Study carried out at  26-bed stroke and rehab unit at Addenbrooke’s hospital
  • Musical instruments helped by improving finger dexterity and cognitive training
  • The mood of the patients was lifted generally, helping them to concentrate 
  • Researchers found repetition was central to the rehabilitation of the patients

Listening to music helps stroke patients recover by stimulating their brain and lifting their mood, a study suggests.

In the first study of its kind, researchers evaluated how music therapy improved the lives of stroke patients in Cambridge.

Stroke is a leading cause of disability in the UK, causing motor skill problems and leaving sufferers struggling to cope mentally among many things.

The study found playing the keyboards, drums and percussion instruments, as well as using iPads, lifted patients’ general mood and helped them concentrate.

The sessions also helped with hand rehabilitation by improving finger dexterity, the researchers found. Repetition was key to helping patients recover.

The study was led by Dr Alex Street, of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), and was carried out on a 26-bed stroke and rehabilitation unit at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge

The study was led by Dr Alex Street, of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), and was carried out on a 26-bed stroke and rehabilitation unit at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge

Strokes, a leading cause of death and disability in the UK, have devastating effects on sufferers long term, rendering many people inept at simple tasks. 

As well as speech and language problems, sufferers struggle with their memory, visio-perceptual skill and even personality changes among other things. 

The effects can also have a huge mental impact on patients, feelings of anger, anxiety or depression are common after a stroke.  

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The study was led by Dr Alex Street, of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), and was carried out on a 26-bed stroke and rehabilitation unit at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge.  

Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) sessions were run alongside existing stroke rehabilitation treatment of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and clinical psychology.  

A total of 177 patients took part in 675 NMT sessions over two years, according to the findings published in the journal Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation.

NMT proved ‘helpful’ or ‘very helpful’ on average for 139 patients, relatives and hospital staff.

Benefits of music after a stroke 

According to the American Stroke Association, playing music after a stroke can: 

  • Improve your balance and gait as well as speech, memory, attention and focus.
  • Help organise motor movement if you can’t control your muscles.
  • Encourage you to move spontaneously in ways you wouldn’t if you thought about it. Stroke may damage executive function, which is the ability to plan and perform tasks. So when you use the affected side, for instance by playing a keyboard, you acknowledge the limb exists and increase the chance you’ll will move that side at will.
  • Increase your focus that’s lost from brain injury to help you perform a series of steps.    

Of the 52 patients who completed mood scale questionnaires, there was a reduction in ‘sad’ and an increase in ‘happy’ responses immediately following a session.

Speech and language therapists observed a positive impact on patient arousal and engagement.

They also reported NMT may help patients overcome low mood and fatigue – both common following stroke – and therefore be beneficial in their rehabilitation. 

Dr Street said: ‘Our study found that Neurologic Music Therapy was received enthusiastically by patients, their relatives, and staff.

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‘The fact 675 sessions were carried out in two years is in itself an indication of the success of the treatment.

‘It shows that staff are referring patients because they understand the mechanisms of the exercises and can see how it can benefit their patients.

‘It also shows that patients are willing to do the exercises, with each one participating in an average of five sessions.’  

‘Staff felt that using music and instruments allowed patients to achieve a high amount of repetition to help achieve their goals.

‘They felt that the exercises appear less clinical, because the patients are playing music with the music therapist, and they are receiving immediate feedback from the exercises, through the sounds they create.’

Leading charity Stroke Association welcomed the research which showed music can help people rebuild their lives after a stroke.

Dr Richard Francis, head of research, said: ‘These latest findings indicate that individuals find music therapy helpful and it can play an important role in their recovery.

‘However, it is worth noting that the study took place in a single hospital and so more evidence is needed to demonstrate the benefits of music therapy. 

‘We’re here to support everyone affected by stroke and fund vital stroke research, including how singing can help stroke survivors with aphasia (a communication disability).’  

Dr Street added: ‘Further research is necessary to establish potential effects of music therapy on recovery rate and length of hospital stay.’

Following the success of the trial, the Cambridge Institute of Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and Addenbrooke’s Hospital are developing a proposal to establish a permanent NHS-funded NMT post on the stroke ward. 

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There are two kinds of stroke: 


An ischemic stroke – which accounts for 80 percent of strokes – occurs when there is a blockage in a blood vessel that prevents blood from reaching part of the brain.


The more rare, a hemorrhagic stroke, occurs when a blood vessel bursts, flooding part of the brain with too much blood while depriving other areas of adequate blood supply.

It can be the result of an AVM, or arteriovenous malformation (an abnormal cluster of blood vessels), in the brain.

Thirty percent of subarachnoid hemorrhage sufferers die before reaching the hospital. A further 25 percent die within 24 hours. And 40 percent of survivors die within a week.


Age, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, family history, and history of a previous stroke or TIA are all risk factors for having a stroke.


  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing or blurred vision in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause


Of the roughly three out of four people who survive a stroke, many will have life-long disabilities.

This includes difficulty walking, communicating, eating, and completing everyday tasks or chores. 


Both are potentially fatal, and patients require surgery or a drug called tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) within three hours to save them. 

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