Singing therapy is often used to restore fluency to sufferers of speech disorders due to stroke. Recent research found, however, it may not be the singing itself that helps. Christie Nicholson reports 

Left-sided stroke victims are often left with a debilitating speech disorder. Yet many can sing entire pieces of text fluently.

Singing is thought to activate areas of the right hemisphere which can pinch hit for the stroke-damaged left side of the brain.

Recent research from the Max Planck Institute has found, however, that it’s not the singing that matters. It’s the rhythm. And if the lyrics are familiar the stroke sufferer finds it even easier to speak them. The research appears in the journal Brain.

Scientists had 17 stroke victims attempt to pronounce thousands of syllables which were sung and recited with either rhythmic or non-rhythmic accompaniment. The lyrics were either very familiar or unfamiliar.

Just speaking the words in a rhythmic fashion was just as effective as singing. Even more important, however, is familiarity of the text. Scientists speculate that speaking commonly known phrases or singing very familiar songs might tap into different, possibly uninjured, parts of the brain than spontaneous speech does.

These results might put the source of success for singing therapies into question. But further studies are needed before therapists decide to change their tune.

—Christie Nicholson