Learning Guitar Effects Stroke Rehabilitation

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For a number of years, the idea that learning guitar effects stroke rehabilitation has been an area of interest for my teaching. This in turn has led to my work with the medical community and lifestyle medicine. As with most things, this interest happened by chance rather than seeking it out. Let me give you a bit of background.

About ten years ago, I began working with a student that had suffered a stroke and contacted me about lessons. At first, the lessons were related to playing guitar and not related to her disabilities due to her stroke. As with most who begin an instrument, life begins to reflect the achievements in your guitar playing.

This student struggled with some motor dysfunction as well as verbal and memory issues. Our lessons were not the usual lessons because the development time was greater. Each week we took smaller portions and I tried to cater the material to allow her to allow her the greatest advantage of success (i.e. less material and complication). Each week was an adventure into how much she had developed in playing the instrument and then into how it was affecting her rehabilitation. This of course was a "side effect" rather than the prescription of learning a musical instrument and how learning guitar effects stroke rehabilitation.

Effect On Motor Dysfunction

The first area of change appeared in her sroke-induced motor dysfunction of her right hand. Playing fingerstyle was a great advantage of focusing on the issue. As the article Neural Reorganization Underlies Improvement in Stroke-induced Motor Dysfunction by Music-supported Therapy¹ suggests,

[W]e see that music-supported therapy leads to marked improvements of motor function after stroke and that these are accompanied by electrophysiological changes indicative of a better cortical connectivity and improved activation of the motor cortex.

A translation of the article in layman's terms is that there was great improvement in motor function of those learning a musical instrument. This study is not about guitar however and focused rather on a midi-piano and an electric drum set. But the results of the process of learning became as clear as the progress she developed while studying the guitar.

Effect On Memory Challenges

The second area of change was in her verbal and memory challenges due to the stroke. I cannot attest to the verbal benefits during our work together but can definitely attest to the memory issue. When we began, she never a thought she could memorize music. It seemed to her like landing on Mars. As time progressed, we eventually memorized several pieces in their entirety as well as the notes on the fret board and written score. I believe that this is due to the development of her brain's plasticity or more specifically her synaptic plasticity². Without going into detail, let's just say that by making the plasticity of the brain greater, the connections become more greased for information and memory.

Conclusion

I am no expert in this field and can only present what has happened in my own experiences. This particular experience was a significant change in my perspective of what I do as a teacher and what learning the guitar can do for the student. I am convinced of the efficacy of how the guitar effects stroke rehabilitation for a positive outcome.

Sources

  1. Altenmüller, E., Marco-Pallares, J., Münte, T. F. and Schneider, S. (2009), Neural Reorganization Underlies Improvement in Stroke-induced Motor Dysfunction by Music-supported Therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169: 395–405. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04580.x

  2. Wan CY1, Schlaug G. Music making as a tool for promoting brain plasticity across the life span. Neuroscientist. 2010 Oct;16(5):566-77. doi: 10.1177/1073858410377805.