Music predates language and speaks to us on a primal level. Thinking back to your adolescence, you probably associate key memories with the soundtracks that played during these formative years.
Before this, music likely began shaping your reality during infancy — there’s even evidence that babies respond to music while still in the womb. At the other end of the spectrum, elderly people, too, including those struggling with degenerative conditions, come alive again when they hear their favorite tunes.
“What is it about music that moves us so intensely and directly, and how can it be employed in the treatment of neurological and physical disorders?” Such are the questions answered and explored in the above documentary, “Music on the Brain.”
Miraculous Results Simply by Sharing Music With Dementia Patients
In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, patients often become moody and withdrawn. They may forget events as well as their own personal history, leading to a loss of identity and self.
The simple act of listening to music may help people with Alzheimer’s to reconnect with the people around them and even remember past life events, which is why the non-profit organization Music & Memory has made this their mission.
The organization works with nursing home staff and elder care professionals, along with family caregivers, to create and provide personalized music playlists using digital audio systems like iPods to people with dementia.
When executive director Dan Cohen first thought of the idea in 2006, he was surprised that none of the 16,000 long-term care facilities in the U.S. used iPods for their residents.
He spearheaded efforts to change that, and today personalized music programs are available in thousands of nursing homes and other facilities in the U.S., Canada, Europe and beyond.
In the video below you can see a clip of nursing-home resident Henry, who was “reawakened” by listening to his favorite musical artist, Cab Calloway.
As Music & Memory put it, “These musical favorites tap deep memories not lost to dementia and can bring participants back to life, enabling them to feel like themselves again, to converse, socialize and stay present … The results can be nothing short of miraculous.” The video below speaks for itself.
Personalized Music May Reduce Agitation and Use of Drugs in Alzheimer’s Patients
It’s interesting to note that some of music’s benefits appear to be rooted in its familiarity. That is, a person’s favorite music or songs they associate with important events can trigger a memory of the song’s lyrics, the related event and even the feelings and experience of it.
In many cases, listening to individualized music appears to be more effective than listening to a random song.
In one study of 39 people in a long-term care facility in Iowa, for example, listening to individualized music led to a significant reduction in agitation (such as anxiety, shouting and irritability) both during and after the session — more so than occurred when residents listened to generic classical relaxation music.
Other research has shown individualized music may calm agitated patients and lead to significantly lower anxiety scores.
The success of the technique depends on nursing staff being able to figure out a patient’s musical preferences, which is why you may want to ask your aging relatives about their favorite songs now (or relay yours to your caregivers) just in case.
It’s also dependent on a person’s interest in music throughout life. You needn’t be overly musical to appreciate music emotionally, as virtually everyone does, but as written in the World Journal of Psychiatry (WJP):
” … [I]t would not be appropriate for a person who did not have an appreciation for music prior to the onset of cognitive impairment. A positive correlation is expected between the degree of significance that music had in the person’s life prior to the onset of dementia and effectiveness of the intervention.”
However, listening to music is a simple, inexpensive and risk-free intervention that has the potential to benefit many.
The response from nursing homes that have implemented Music & Memory’s individualized music program has been overwhelmingly positive, with many even reporting reduced drug use as a result. Margaret Rivers of Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital & Nursing Facility in New York City told Music & Memory:
“One of the more positive results we’re seeing is a reduction in the need for psychotropic medication. Music soothes the residents to the point where they actually may not need all of the medications that they needed prior to going on [Music & Memory’s] program.”
Familiar Songs May Help Alzheimer’s Patients Recall Memories
When you listen to music, a broad range of neural networks become engaged, including those linked to autobiographical memories and emotions. The brain region behind your forehead, known as the medial prefrontal cortex, is one of the last to atrophy among Alzheimer’s patients; it’s also the hub that music activates.
Petr Janata, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at University of California (UC) Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, conducted a study to map the brain activity of subjects as they listened to music. He said in a press release:
“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.
It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye … Now we can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories.”
Janata is among those who believe providing Alzheimer’s patients with digital music players and customized playlists could improve their quality of life. In some cases it may also help them to share those memories as well.
When Alzheimer’s patients sat in rooms filled with music and were asked to tell a story about their life, their stories contained more meaningful words, were more grammatically complex, and conveyed more information (per number of words) than stories told in a silent room.
The findings suggest that exposure to music may help people with Alzheimer’s disease to overcome neurolinguistic limitations. This makes sense, the study’s co-author noted, because “music and language processing share a common neural basis.” In the video below, the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” explained how listening to familiar music may allow Alzheimer’s patients to access personal memories that have otherwise become inaccessible.
Your Brain Is Hard-Wired to Respond to Music
Music on the Brain discusses that music may have evolved from an earlier form of emotional communication, an emotional proto-language of the sort you may hear between a mother and a baby. Tone of voice and pitch are incredibly important before language emerges, and it’s thought this early form of communication eventually split into language, which conveys more information, and music, which conveys emotion.
When you hear music, many areas of your brain light up. Music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, a part of your brain that releases the feel-good chemical dopamine and is involved in forming expectations.
At the same time, the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotion, and the prefrontal cortex, which makes possible abstract decision-making, are also activated. Meanwhile, oxytocin, the bonding hormone that’s released when we interact with our loved ones, is also released by music, specifically by singing together.
Many evolutionary biologists believe that music was fundamental in our ability to function as humans and hold together large communities of people, as music is capable of producing oxytocin, i.e., bonding and sharing emotions, on a massive scale.
Music Helps People With Parkinson’s Disease Move More Freely
Even brain areas that control movement are affected by music. This may seem strange until you consider that movement, such as drumming, was once essential to creating music. Today, music is now being used to help people with diseases like Parkinson’s to move more freely.
Slowness, tremor, stiffness and impaired balance are common in Parkinson’s patients, but emerging research suggests music may be an effective non-drug intervention. People who ordinarily are unable to control their movements are suddenly able to follow the beat of a song and dance. The music seems to provide an external rhythm that bypasses the malfunctioning signals in the brain.
A variety of neurological disorders have shown improvement from music-based interventions, including not only Parkinson’s disease but also multiple sclerosis and stroke. In fact, music-based interventions had similar or greater effects than conventional rehabilitation on upper limb function, mobility and cognition among people with neurological disorders.
Music Opens a Back Door for Memory Recall in Your Brain
By tapping areas of your brain linked to both emotions and memory, music can act as a back door to help you access past events that would otherwise be lost. As Music & Memory put it:
“Even for persons with severe dementia, music can tap deep emotional recall. For individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s, memory for things — names, places [and] facts — is compromised, but memories from our teenage years can be well-preserved.
Favorite music or songs associated with important personal events can trigger memory of lyrics and the experience connected to the music. Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.
Persons with dementia, Parkinson’s and other diseases that damage brain chemistry also reconnect to the world and gain improved quality of life from listening to personal music favorites.”
If you’re a caregiver to someone with dementia, creating a personalized playlist for him or her is a simple way to help them reconnect with the outside world and feel like themselves again, even for a little while.
On a larger scale, if you have a loved one in a nursing home, you may want to suggest they consider the use of individualized music for their residents. Music & Memory also accepts donations of gently used Apple music players, including iPods, iPhones or iPads. If you have one you’re no longer using, consider donating it to this worthwhile cause.