Journicle Review: Exploring a Neuroplasticity Model of Music Therapy


Review by: Hannah Rhinehart

Neuroplasticity can occur when changes happen in the brain and single neurons, network of neurons, or an entire region responds to new stimuli, excitatory or inhibitory. The single neuron is responsible for with synaptic plasticity where the synapses provide information to the individual neurons. Neural networks are next that determine the function of those individual neurons. Cortical remapping happens when the entire region responds to a new stimulus, and the brain restores a pathways or creates an alternative. In sensory areas, the arrangement of receptive fields can change in response to altered circumstances. This is what happens when we want restore or alter behavior.

Neuroplasticity has a couple of critical periods. The first is birth to 3 where connections are forming for the first time. During this time, children need to be exposed to appropriate stimuli to develop these pathways. This stage provides the stable ‘wiring’ in case of incident later in life. If these original pathways are never laid, it is much more difficult to create brand new paths instead of by-pass. The second critical period is 3 to 6 then slows and evens out until early 20s. Even though it settles, neuroplasticity continues until death.

Dopamine in the brain is vital to neuroplasticity and recent studies shows that music stimulates dopaminergic regions. The same neural transmitter is involved in reinforcement learning and reward. Research shows a strong link between these regions and cognitive sub-systems, including orbito-frontal cortex (encoding and temporal memory) and emotional prosodic processing. Even though this study is limited to music listening, the “…music stimulates activation of dopaminergic regions of the brain responsible for motivation, reward, and learning and that dopamine release from these regions may regulate neuroplasticity mechanisms, music therapists may be providing an enhanced learning environment for nonmusical tasks/behaviors through music-stimulated dopaminergic mediated neuroplasticity mechanisms.  

All of this is to basically say, ‘we know what music therapy is, but how does it really work? Besides the evidence-based changes that we can observe in our children, what is it doing to their brain?’ And the answer is, ‘really cool stuff!’ Music aides the brain by providing a stimulus to create new connections that shape and alter learning and behavior.  So here is why it works broken down into 5 domains: social, emotional, cognitive, speech and communication, and movement.

Social: by using preferred music, the dopamine center is reinforced in the reward center of the brain and increases the neural response. By not starting the music until the appropriate behavior has been demonstrated, the music therapist is pairing the reward with the new neural connection for social interaction with a positive feeling of success. With repetition, this connection grows stronger until the patient can complete without music.

Emotional: allowing appropriate emotional expression through music composition provides a synchronized dopaminergic reward that stimulates the connections associated with appropriate emotional expression and suppresses connectivity associated with inappropriate emotional expression.

Cognitive: pairs nonmusical information with music and encourages neuroplasticity through dopaminergic release and neural synchrony. Also, music is a clear signal, speech can be noisy and is challenging and provides better encoding for the brain.

Speech and communication: music therapists can introduce proper breathing techniques and emphasize creating full sounds rather than loud which can harm the voice. Breathing transfers into proper speaking when paired with musical stimuli and cues. This strengthens the neural connections until they are automated.

Movement: refers specifically to cortical remapping. There are many motor neural networks, self-initiated, externally generated, etc. Someone with difficulty walking is using a different area of their brain to walk in time to music than they to walk in silence to another chair. Music once again strengthens the neural connection and synchrony between walking and music until walking it is once again automated

The three main principles of neuroplasticity are increase of dopamine, neural synchrony, and a clear signal. When taking this into account, it makes so much sense why music therapy is effective. Music therapists are able to address all 3 principles simultaneously in a nonintrusive way to the patient. Hard work, brain changing work, has never been so motivating.


Stegemoller, E. L. (2014). Exploring a Neuroplasticity Model of Music Therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 51(3), 211-227. doi:10.1093/jmt/thu023

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