By Ann Farris
For Senior Voice 

Living with dementia and the power of music


January 1, 2021

Have you ever experienced “goosebumps” while listening to a song or piece of music? Does a certain song or genre of music instantly flood you with memories of family or friends? Music has the amazing power to elicit strong emotions and unlock forgotten experiences for most people. While there is a small percentage of people for whom music is ineffective, for most, music can even be healing. For those living with dementia or other cognitive disorder, music can be life-saving.

According to neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin, featured in the PBS documentary “The Music Instinct”, experiencing “goosebumps” or chills from listening to a song or piece of music demonstrates the strong connection between music and the mind. Listening to music can evoke memories or emotions that are so strong our bodies react physically to this intersection. In fact, a recent study from the University of Southern California found that participants who reacted strongly to certain music possessed a “higher volume of fibers that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing”. For most of us, our brains are hardwired in various ways to respond to music.

Listening or singing to your favorite music can:

provide connection and boost our mood

help us remember happier times

comfort and give us a sense of belonging

lift our spirits

relieve boredom

Music has many health benefits, such as:

a mood booster and stress reliever

may boost immunity

can provide a bonding experience

may improve depression, sleep, and memory function

can improve heart health

According to “The Science of Singing,” music can also provide deeper benefits. When we sing, we create for ourselves a state of being that feels inspiring and can even inspires others. The power of making music can be “the magic that happens when you finally give voice to a part of your core self.”

For people living with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia, music not only comforts but can help access hard to reach memories and offer a way to communicate when the spoken word becomes more challenging. In his book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” (2007), neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks states that, “for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Music can unlock memories and even unexpected responses. This magic is evident in the documentary, “Alive Inside”. An older man named Henry, living in a care facility, had become so disconnected from his surroundings that he literally sat in a fetal position in his chair. However, when the founder of a program called Music and Memory brought in an iPod and headphones to play Henry’s favorite music, Henry responded and the magic unfolded. The beauty of using music is that it can be as accessible as pressing the “pPlay” button, singing with someone, or just listening to someone sing to you.

Because each person is unique, how we live with a brain disorder like Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias will be unique. Therefore, discovering how music can lend aid and support will require a focused effort. Take a few moments to consider you or your loved one’s relationship to music. What are the general music preferences? Is there a specific type of music that is soothing or comforting? What music is motivating or elicits happy memories? We recommend creating a list of songs, musicians, and musical genres that enrich your loved one’s life and offer engagement. This information can assist with everything from connection to providing a way for those on a care team to engage when verbal communication is impaired.

If someone in the later stages of dementia is unable to communicate their favorite music to those that who are providing care, consider putting on your musical detective hat. A few places to start are:

contacting the person’s family or friends to learn about their favorite music

playing a popular or inspiring song that may elicit a response

playing or singing simple songs with a lot of repetition

singing or humming a very familiar tune to see if the person responds, such as:

“Happy Birthday,”

“Amazing Grace,”

familiar songs from the era of the person’s childhood or a

a song you know and love.

Music can touch us deeply and elicit powerful responses. For someone living with dementia it can offer joy, peacefulness and heartfelt human connection that can enrich their lives. So, dust off those old records or find a favorite radio station and revel in the music and all that it brings.

Ann Farris is an Educational Specialist with Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska. Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, as well as the services and supports available, by visiting or calling 800-478-1080.


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