Music and art in rehabilitation

Both music and art can greatly assist patients during their rehabilitation process, as Daniella Winer explains

For centuries, music and art have been a source of universal joy and interest. For some, it provides a form of income, while for others it is a place of comfort or relaxation. Music and art are also reliable therapeutic modalities in the rehabilitation of physical, cognitive and emotional disability or dysfunction.

When individuals are faced with a sudden or gradual illness or disability they can find themselves regularly needing to adjust to a variety of changing emotions. In these cases, it is common for someone’s mood and internal drive to be negatively affected. They may need help moving through the process of healing. When asked why she enjoyed incorporating art and music into her therapy, one patient explained that it helps her relax, live in the moment, and forget about her current worries, helping her to focus more on the therapy session.

Engaging in these forms of leisure in order to achieve therapeutic outcomes is a fun and stress- free modality, which allows enjoyment alongside improvement. Furthermore, engaging in these hobbies encourages constructive and purposeful use of free time which helps maintain quality of life.

Using musical instruments or producing art are also natural ways of encouraging active use of affected limbs. Take the drums for example. This requires someone to use their legs to balance the instrument, while using their arms to bang on the surface. This encourages spontaneous and active use of the legs and arms within a fun activity, which is often much more motivating and natural than a more rigid and precise exercise regime.

Another example is where those who struggle to use one side of their bodies, such as stroke survivors, can be encouraged to use their affected arm to stabilise the paper while using their unaffected hand to draw, paint or colour. This facilitates improved awareness of the affected side (which has often lost sensation), and helps the brain more naturally recall that the limb exists and is important. It also assists with visual scanning, a necessary skill for someone who has lost vision on one side following their stroke.

In addition to being a form of enjoyment for many, music often makes people want to dance! Dance encourages gross motor movement, which in turn stimulates movement in weak arms and legs. Dance is also a great form of exercise, which gets the heart rate up and the blood flowing. It allows people to work on their endurance and stamina. Additionally, the beauty of dance is that it can be done in any position. No matter if you’re standing, using a wheelchair, or even lying down, movement is possible and encouraged.

For some, participation in music includes singing, which is on its own an effective form of therapy. In some conditions, such as higher spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, or strokes, breath support can be affected. Partaking in singing is an enjoyable way of strengthening intercostal muscles, the diaphragm and the lungs, all of which are necessary for effective breathing.

Conditions such as aphasia or verbal apraxia, common in people who have had brain injuries or strokes, can also be treated with singing, as it encourages both spontaneous and active speech in a natural and pleasurable way.

Group participation is a key piece in the rehabilitation puzzle. It encourages people to learn from one another, interact with others in similar situations, and allows for social interaction. Group music and art sessions have also been highly successful in the rehabilitation setting as they allow for people to form relationships through shared interests while having a whole lot of fun. Moreover, these groups assist with treating cognitive skills such as attention, following of instructions, and sequencing.

It is clear that the use of music and art is a powerful tool in increasing one’s motivation, uplifting emotional wellbeing, and improving overall outlook. This in turn improves a person’s enthusiasm to participate actively in therapy. Providing a space for people to work on physical or cognitive challenges, while enjoying themselves, is something which should regularly be encouraged, and even celebrated!

So whether it’s picking up a new instrument, giving painting a go, or singing out a tune, make music and art a part of the therapeutic journey and just watch the magic happen.


Daniella Winer is an occupational therapist with a special interest in post-stroke rehabilitation. She works as the deputy unit manager of the stroke unit in a physical rehabilitation centre in Johannesburg.

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