Music and Memory in Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease, and Health
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. I discuss some of the medical and non-medical effects of music in this article. I also include a poem about the power of music. The character in the poem is fictional, but the power is not.
The first word of the term "Alzheimer's disease" is capitalized because the disorder is named after a person. Alois Alzheimer (1864 to 1915) was a German doctor. He is credited with the first recognition of the disease that eventually bore his name.
Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease
Although 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.
Potential Benefits of Music Therapy
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 favorite 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 behavior in a beneficial way.
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 rhythmic 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 I think the activity is definitely worth trying as long as it's approved by the patient's doctor. A physician may be able to give an educated guess about how the music may affect the patient.
Triggering Memories in a Dementia Patient
In April 2014, 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.
The 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 (1907–1994). Calloway was a popular American singer and bandleader. He also appeared in movies.
Music has triggered memories in other dementia patients besides Henry. It's important to note that it may not do this in all patients, 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, I think the potential power of music should be investigated further and spread as far as possible.
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 those who 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. I still remember a personal experience from many years ago. My beloved dog had recently died. I was watching a TV program that was accompanied by music with lyrics. The tune, the singer's voice, and the words combined to create an overwhelming effect on me as it triggered memories of my dog and her life. It took me some time to recover.
People may be able to predict the effect of music on their minds from their prior experience, but sometimes the effect is sudden, strong, and unpredictable. For me, this is part of the fascination of music—to reveal the unexpected.
Distant memories as well as recent ones may be awakened or reinforced by music. 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.
Exploring the Power of Music in a Poem
The link between music, mood, and memory fascinates me. I have experienced the link and its power multiple times in my life. My poem below focuses on the connection. It's a fictional tale but is related to a real power.
The character depicted in the poem is living with “half a soul” because he will not allow himself to remember a major event in his past that 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 traveler 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.
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 the old ally:
the power to repel,
then pushed guilt deep within,
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.
- "Music and Alzheimer's: Can it Help?" from the Mayo Clinic
- Music can help dementia and stroke patients remember from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
- "Music Therapy in Alzheimer and Dementia Care" from the Music Therapy Association of British Columbia
- The healing power of music for Alzheimer's patients from AARP (American Association of Retired Persons)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 Linda Crampton