Ep. 4: Music Rewires the Brain (Maegan Morrow)

August 20, 2019

Music Rewires the Brain

Our guest’s work with former US Rep. Gabby Giffords really hit home with me because my mother suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 1994 car accident; and I have relatives who were constituents of Giffords’ in Tucson. Maegan explains how music is used for healing the brain, particularly aphasia, which Ms. Giffords experienced – the inability to speak because of damage to the language pathways in the brain.  By layering words on top of melody and rhythm, the brain is trained to use a less-traveled pathway to the same destination. “Music is that other road to get back to language,” said Maegan Morrow in “Music Therapy Helps Gabrielle Giffords Find Her Voice After Tucson Shooting.” Morrow compared the process to a freeway detour. “You aren’t able to go forward on that pathway anymore,” she said, but “you can exit and go around, and get to where you need to go.” The brain’s ability to pave new pathways around damaged areas is called neuroplasticity.


Maegan Morrow is a music therapist and certified brain injury specialist at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston.  Maegan’s work came to my attention through her success in helping Giffords re-learn how to talk using music therapy, after Giffords’ horrific shooting in 2011.  Maegan is a Board-Certified Music Therapist whose primary area of expertise is using Neurologic Music Therapy techniques for interdisciplinary work in a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation setting. She has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, Newsweek, USA Today, the Grammys.com, and ABC’s Nightline with Bob Woodruff. She and her team have been recognized as “Persons of the Week” by Diane Sawyer and David Muir. She has been a panelist with the Americans for the Arts at Sundance with Robert Redford, and is involved in two clinical music therapy research projects.  Outside of the hospital, she is a vocal performing artist and church musician. She has a passion to use music for the betterment of our world and serves in multiple ways to unite art and music therapy advocacy.


Maegan recommends singing because of singing’s many benefits – and because we can all do it (regardless of talent!).  Among its many benefits, singing strengthens the immune system; increases lung capacity; is a natural anti-depressant; releases endorphins; relaxes and reduces stress levels; expands vocabulary; increases neuroplasticity; trains the ear, resulting in greater empathy when listening due to increased awareness of inflection variations; can reduce asthmatic symptoms by strengthening the lungs (Maegan overcame her need for inhalers through the lung exercise and breath control of opera singing). 

Singing and making music with other people bonds you to those people, enlarging your circle of friends and social abilities.  Singing is also less threatening when done in a group.  Maegan recommends joining a singing group in your community or place of worship.


How can listeners learn more about your work, music therapy in general, and connect with you?


Guests share a song or story about a moment when music enhanced their life.  Maegan loves reading fantasy, and shared the lyrics to a song that is special to her: A Spark Inside Us.  The song is used in the cartoon version of the 1872 book,The Princess and the Goblin,” by George MacDonald, who was a big influence on Tolkien. She has showed the cartoon many times to her two daughters. The story is about a princess trying to escape darkness and the goblins living below her.  In rising up to eradicate the goblins, all the characters start singing this song.  Maegan sees in the lyrics an analogy to what happens when you sing and participate in music – you are empowered to overcome challenges to your body, mind, and soul. 

“A Spark Inside Us”
Composed by Chris Stuart 
Lyrics by Robin Lyons 

There’s a spark inside us
That we can all ignite.
And all that’s dark inside us
Will flicker into light..

There’s a power in every breath
There’s a power in every note
A power that starts within the heart
A power that rises through the throat

And when it sails up through the air
More beautiful than any prayer
This power can right all wrong
And it will always thrill the ear
Of those who have the power to hear
The magic of a song

All that’s strong inside us
That tells us wrong from right
Becomes a song inside us
To chase away the night

Other Resources

  • Gabby Giffords: Finding Words Through Song, By KATIE MOISSE, BOB WOODRUFF, JAMES HILL AND LANA ZAK is an article I reference on the show.  There is a quote in the article by Dr. Oliver Sacks: “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music.” Dr. Sacks’ account of music therapy in Parkinson’s disease was the basis for the book and film “Awakenings.”



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9 responses to “Ep. 4: Music Rewires the Brain (Maegan Morrow)”

  1. I will definitely be passing this along to Mom’s occupational therapist. Think I need to listen to it again to absorb better all that was said.

  2. Thank you so much! I loved the final product. You are a great interviewer. I listen to podcasts every day. It is such an art, what you do…cheers to more successful interviews.
    Thanks again for asking me, Maegan