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Music, Mood, and Memories in Alzheimer's Disease and Health

Updated on September 10, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, and listening to classical, folk, and early music.

Music can take us to new places. It can also awaken memories and be a form of time travel.
Music can take us to new places. It can also awaken memories and be a form of time travel. | Source

The Power of Music

Music has an almost magical ability to manipulate emotions and trigger memories of past events and feelings. The melody, rhythm, and tempo of music can evoke excitement and ecstasy or calmness and relaxation. Listening to music can be a enjoyable activity for both healthy people and those with dementia. Caregivers have discovered that the activity awakens happy memories in some people with Alzheimer's disease. The memories may be hidden in the patient's daily life, but music has the power to temporarily reveal them.

Music is so powerful that it's sometimes used to alter the state of consciousness. Music created in drum circles, meditation groups, and religious rituals can create a sense of cohesion and a specific psychological state or mood in the members of the group. This state may be planned or accidental. The emotions that are evoked may be intense. Concerts may also evoke strong emotions, which may sometimes be overwhelming.

Music therapy is an important application of the power of music. The therapy can help many different problems, including mood disorders, movement difficulties, and certain medical conditions, including dementia.

Donated iPods and other digital music players can improve the lives of people in nursing homes.
Donated iPods and other digital music players can improve the lives of people in nursing homes. | Source

Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease

Athough the terms dementia and Alzheimer's disease are sometimes used interchangeably, the two conditions aren't exactly the same. Dementia is a set of symptoms. Alzheimer's disease is an example of an illness that causes the symptoms. It's the main cause of dementia, but it's not the only one.

The symptoms of dementia include memory loss, a decline in thinking skills, an inability to communicate properly, and confusion. Someone suffering from the disorder may also experience mood swings, periods of agitation, and movement problems.

Music can release hidden memories and emotions.
Music can release hidden memories and emotions. | Source

Music Therapy for People in Need

Music & Memory is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music to elderly or infirm people to improve their quality of life. iPods and similar digital music players are used to let people hear their favourite music.

The program was started by Dan Cohen based on an idea he had in 2006. He noticed that no nursing homes in the United States gave their residents iPods to listen to music. He volunteered to create iPod playlists for people in a New York nursing home. The residents enjoyed listening to the music so much that he expanded his program. Today a long list of nursing homes in the United States and Canada give their residents digital music players and headphones.

Music seems to be very helpful for people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease. According to the AFA (Alzheimer's Foundation of America), although the parts of the brain that deal with cognition are damaged in people with dementia, those that process rhythmical sounds aren't. The organization says that patients often enjoy listening to music and that the experience can modify their behaviour in a beneficial way.

Music with rhythm and a beat is often a good choice for Alzheimer's patients.
Music with rhythm and a beat is often a good choice for Alzheimer's patients. | Source

Music has power—especially for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And it can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.

— Alzheimer's Foundation of America

Using Music to Help People with Dementia

If someone wants to use music therapy to help a dementia patient, it's a good idea to get tips from a caregiver with experience in this area. In general, though, the AFA says that lively music cheers a patient up and encourages activity while relaxing music calms the patient down when they're agitated or when it's time to go to bed. Though music can help with patient management, the main goal of music therapy is to improve a patient's quality of life.

Music of many types may be useful for dementia, but rhymic tunes and singing seem to work best when the goal is to improve a patient's mood. Patients recognize rhythm and move in time to music, although they may move only part of their body. Patients may enjoy creating rhythmic sounds and singing themselves as well as listening to other performers. Music may not only make them happier but also improve their relationships with other people. Listening to music may not be helpful for all dementia patients, but the activity is definitely worth trying.

Alive Inside: Music and Alzheimer's Disease

Triggering Memories in a Dementia Patient

In April 2012, a documentary called "Alive Inside: The Story of Music and Memory" was created to describe the work of the Music & Memory program for people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. A scene showing the touching effect of music on a man named Henry became a big hit on YouTube.

Henry had suffered from dementia for ten years at the time when the video below was made. He hardly ever spoke, responding to questions with only "Yes" or "No". He was withdrawn and generally unresponsive to his environment. This situation changed when Henry heard his favourite type of music. Even when his headphones were removed after he had listened to the music, Henry was temporarily connected to the world around him and could respond appropriately and enthusiastically to questions. For a while, he was "restored to life", as the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks says in the video below. Henry's comments showed that he remembered happy events from his past. These memories were related to his love of music, including that of Cab Calloway.

Music has triggered memories in other dementia patients besides Henry. It's important to note that it may not do this in all patients, however, although the music may help them in other ways. Ideally, we would be able to prevent Alzheimer's Disease and other causes of dementia or cure the disorders once they appeared. Until this becomes a reality, however, the potential power of music should be investigated further and spread as far as possible.

Alive Inside: Awakening Henry's Memories With Music

Music may sometimes evoke a painful memory instead of a happy one. It's important that caregivers monitor a patient's response to music therapy carefully. If possible, the music should be associated with a pleasant memory or emotion from the patient's past.

Uncovering Memories in People Without Dementia

Music is powerful for people who don't have dementia as well as for those that do. It's wonderful when music awakens happy memories, as it often does, but not so wonderful if it reminds people of unpleasant or sad events. People may be able to predict the effect of music on their minds from their prior experience, but sometimes, as in my poem below, the effect is sudden, strong, and unpredictable. For me, this is part of the fascination of music—to reveal the unexpected.

Memories of events that have long been forgotten can suddenly appear in our conscious mind when we're listening to music and emotions experienced during past events can return. The memories and emotions may not always be pleasant or welcome, especially if they’re associated with events that we want to forget or that we’ve deliberately suppressed.

Sometimes a memory is so painful that if it’s unmasked it might harm our present life. It’s probably best to keep this type of memory hidden from our consciousness. In other cases, it might be better if an unpleasant memory is allowed to emerge so that we can deal with the situation that created it.

Music can reveal new worlds and ideas as well as reawaken old ones.
Music can reveal new worlds and ideas as well as reawaken old ones. | Source

Half a Soul

The character depicted in the poem below is living with “half a soul” because he will not allow himself to remember a major event in his past which needs to be examined. He has become an expert in suppressing the memory if it tries to emerge. The event—whatever it was—is too painful for him to remember, especially since he doesn’t know how to resolve the situation that created the memory. In a way, he is psychologically incomplete because of his refusal to deal with an important part of his life.

Setting the Scene

A cold sun hangs over a frozen field. Scattered trees at the edge of the field obscure the view of a nearby village. Occasionally, sounds from the village penetrate the silence.

A traveller appears and moves across the field, bypassing the village. He wants no contact with people or their activity. Despite his desire for isolation, he is about to encounter the power of music to awaken memories.

Frozen Memories
Frozen Memories | Source

Music Plays With Half a Soul

When he heard the music of a distant choir

he stopped, puzzled and perturbed,

and curled up painfully against the frozen grass,

to protect himself from harm.


The music swelled in power

and ripples struck his head,

disturbing long forgotten memories,

and sparking into life

dependent flames of ecstasy.


In daring wonderment

he tried to touch the sound,

to communicate with love.

Instead the voices ebbed

and then the music stopped.


He rose with difficulty

and viewed the icy scene

with hope and then with fear,

the sharpened edge of guilt

preparing to attack.


He felt the joy and hate within,

pain's effort to expand,

and struggled fiercely in the fight

to squash the shrill demand.


Sickened by the past

he found his old ally:

the power to repel,

then pushed guilt deep within,

resistance frightening.


He shivered at success,

his foe subdued but not destroyed,

and forgot for now and then.

Left in uneasy solitude,

he hurried on his way.


References

Graff-Radford, Jonathan, M.D. "Music and Alzheimer's: Can it Help?" The Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/music-and-alzheimers/faq-20058173 (accessed September 9, 2017).

Kattenburg, David. "Music can help dementia, stroke patients remember." Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/music-can-help-dementia-stroke-patients-remember-1.3442854 (accessed September 9, 2017).

Kirkland, Kevin. "Music Therapy in Alzheimer and Dementia Care." Music Therapy Association of British Columbia. http://www.mtabc.com/what-is-music-therapy/how-does-music-therapy-work/alzheimers-disease/ (accessed September 9, 2017).

© 2010 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Martie!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 23 months ago from South Africa

      As always, your hub is filled with important information. Beautiful poem! Thanks, Alicia :)

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, Pavlo. I agree with you - music can definitely inspire the future as well as reveal the past!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      It reveals past and I agree with that. Music can also inspire the future. Great hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the list of musicians, phdast7. The only person from your list that I know is Lorenna McKennit, and I do love her music. I'm looking forward to exploring the music created by all the other people that you mention!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Alicia -

      This is a wonderful poem and a great hub. So glad I found it. :)

      Now in keeping with your comments about the power of music to touch our emotions and memories a few of my favorite musicians:

      Fleet Foxes

      Mumford and Sons

      The Civil Wars

      Nickel Creek

      The Lumineers

      EastMountainSouth

      Sons of Sylvia

      Lorenna McKennit

      Brandi Carlisle

      Angie Aparo

      Claire Burson

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Chris. I appreciate your visit and comment.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image

      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      That was a very beautiful poem and interesting hub, thank you for sharing :)

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, teaches12345. I love classical music too. It can be very relaxing if the right piece of music is chosen!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      I can see how music would help one recover from past woes. I enjoy playing soft classical music to relax and for meditation purposes. Your poem is touching and quite real in the sense of how it brings memory through music. This is a good hub.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, writer20. I appreciate your comment very much! My avatar photo shows Nevin, one of my ragdoll cats.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 6 years ago from Southern Nevada

      A great wonderful poem, you have so much talent.

      Loved the frozen tree photo and more so the photo of your cute kitty

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and comment, John.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Nice poem, very intense. thanks

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, epigramman. Thank you very much for your comment and such kind words!!!

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 6 years ago

      ....well you truly lured me into a poetic dimension of intrigue, mystery and imagination that I momentarily lost all conception of time and place - and I was so absorbed by your world - Hubpages did not exist - I only existed for your words!!!!!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, duffsmom.

    • duffsmom profile image

      P. Thorpe Christiansen 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

      Beautiful use of words and phrases.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for your comment, Fossillady.

    • Fossillady profile image

      Kathi 6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Beautiful photography and prose to go with it

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, pennyofheaven. Thank you for your kind comment.

    • pennyofheaven profile image

      pennyofheaven 6 years ago from New Zealand

      Isn't it always like that. We try to touch the sound. The ripples of which stir forgotten memories of that which we are. A very poetic voice you have. Awesome Thank you.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for your comment, Cheyenne. I’m glad that I’ve discovered your hubs and poetry. It's great to meet you!

    • CheyenneAutumn profile image

      CheyenneAutumn 6 years ago

      The mystery in this is beautiful. Your presentation of him shows a compassion like a loving friend watching a lost friend find his way. knowing they cannot guide them as they find themselves.

      Very Nice! I really enjoyed it. Thumbs up all around!

      Cheyenne

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Nellieanna. Thank you very much for your comment. I intended the poem to be somewhat open to interpretation. What I hoped to do was to present a character or entity who is flawed in some unexplained way, but who is not irredeemable. The character quickly suppresses memories of his blemished past.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 6 years ago from TEXAS

      This tells just enough to intrigue a reader but not enough to fully satisfy. Now I'll be pondering about it! I'm not even sure "he" is a human being! But I LOVE the line "he tried to touch the sound . . ." That imagery really pulls me in. And it stilled the music, - - odd. But it relieved him even as it brought questions to the surface, which might have been unsettling, but seemed too easily sloughed off. Puzzling - and fascinating! I like it! And that illustration is gorgeous. Bar-r-r-r!

      This hub definitely gets my vote and accolades.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and the vote, Nell.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

      Hi, this is lovely, I am sure that we all have these little flashes of rememberance sometimes, voted up, cheers nell

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for your kind comment, prasetio30. Best wishes and a happy new year to you.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

      This is so beautiful. I am glad to know this from you. You made my day so colorful by this poem. Thank you very much. I thought we have the same profession who concern about education. I am a private teacher and you are a lecturer. Keep on writing, my friend. Love and peace

      Prasetio:)

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for your comment, kidsangel17884.

    • kidsangel7884 profile image

      kidsangel7884 6 years ago from norfolk. VA.

      This is beautiful. thank you for sharing...