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Music therapy & brain injury

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Music therapy & brain injury

Music therapy is a therapy that can be useful for people in post-coma unresponsiveness or a minimally responsive state.

It can be helpful during rehabilitation and leisure time and as a means to communicate with a loved one.


For a person with restricted movement, compromised cognitive capacity and limited means of communication, music is quite simply one of the most accessible resources. Families and carers may feel they are left with no meaningful way to communicate and share time with their loved one after a brain injury. Music can be a way to interact and just be with a person who is minimally responsive.


How to use music

Where possible the music should be in line with the person's choice and preferences.  Gain an understanding of the patient's relationship with music and their musical preferences before the brain injury occurred. For example, did they listen to live or recorded music? Did they take an active role in playing an instrument? Was music used as a means of emotional expression? Using familiar music will optimise recognition of the music which is being played. Being familiar with how the injured person used music previously will assist in awareness of how it might be appropriate to use music now.


Try incorporating music into leisure activities. Play and explore different preferred music with the person in a minimally responsive state. It can help to establish flexible and fun ways of sharing meaningful connections, hope and love.


Suggested strategies for using music

  • Use concrete visual cues such as CD players, pictures of instruments or photos of a musician to orient the patient to the activity before playing the music.
  • Listen to a familiar CD together in a quiet location where distractions are minimized.
  • Let the person choose to listen to music with a single 'yes/no' response if they can. If they are capable of choosing a type of music, keep choices to a minimum - e.g. a forced choice of two songs/artists. Use brief musical cues such as humming short fragments of each song if this helps.
  • Play music which has been special between you and your relative, and reminisce about special memories out loud as the music plays or afterwards.
  • Use background music with personal meaning for gentle hand massage or other physical contact.
  • Use music when the injured person is alert, then allow them periods of rest - musical activities should last no more than 15-20 minutes before a period of no stimulation.
  • Watch for emotional responses which can be expected; consult professional staff if these responses are unusual. Music can evoke tears, smiles and a range of other emotions for all of us, and this is not necessarily a negative experience for the audience.


 There is a wealth of information available on the use of music as or in therapy for people with a range of diverse needs. Information about music therapy can be found on the Australian Music Therapy Association's website at

References and further information

Lash & Associates Publishing /Training Inc.


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