The Power of Music

It has happened to all of us.  We hear a song from long ago and we are instantly transported to a special time and place, rich in memories, perhaps of moments shared with a loved one or a happy time in our lives.  Music and Memory is a delightful therapy with no negative side effects.

With dementia patients, the loss of cognitive function means we lose our loved ones.  They do not know who we are.  They do not seem to recall our shared memories.  It is difficult for them to communicate.  We lose them.

Music, however, gives an opportunity to change that.  The ability to recall music and rhythm resides in areas of the brain that are unaffected by dementia. Listening to favorite songs stimulates the brain and seems to reduce — even temporarily reverse — cognitive decline.  Even after short listening sessions,  clients regain energy and interact more normally.  They definitely enjoy themselves.

It’s easy to do.  If you want to share some special moments with your loved one, do the following:

  • Identify a playlist of  favorite songs/music pieces.  This may take time.  You may know what your dad’s favorite pieces are, or you may need to do a little discovery.  Look through his old records and CDs.  Ask him what songs he likes.  Play a few.  When you hit pay dirt, you’ll know it.  Once you have a favorite artist, use iTunes or YouTube to explore other songs by that artist.  Keep track of the songs and genres that obviously are favorites.  You want enough songs for a decent amount of listening.  Set an initial target of 30 to 50 songs.
  • If you need some help, check out the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function website:   musictherapy.imnf.org.  They offer suggested songs by era and type. Click on “Outpatient Services,” then on “Top 10’s For Memory.”
  • Make conversation about music.  What songs did you like when you were a boy?  What were popular songs when you were in high school?  What songs did you sing in church?    What song did you dance to at your wedding?  We have found that once people start to have recollections about one song or genre, it becomes easier to recall others.
  • Make it a regular activity.  The process in itself is an enjoyable activity for caregivers and family, not to mention the dementia sufferer.  Listening to favorite songs and trying to rediscover old favorites is great shared activity.  Who knows?  You may get hooked on some of these oldies!
  • Allow your loved one to enjoy the music every day.  Make it a regular daily activity.  There may be songs that are more suitable for morning and others that are better for evening.  Certain songs may evoke a sad memory.  Sad memories are not necessarily bad, but be mindful of how your loved one reacts.
  • Take advantage of technology.  There’s nothing wrong with playing records or CDs, but it takes more work (you have to change records) and you may need to listen to three or four less favorite songs in order to hear the favorites.   Today, there is nothing like an MP3 player or iPod to provide a customized playlist.  A playlist can be set to run for hours of pure enjoyment.  The other advantage of these devices is that if your loved one is in a community or assisted living facility, he can enjoy his music, at the volume he likes, without disturbing his neighbors.  The iTunes store and YouTube are a great place to explore artists and genres.  On YouTube, you may have the added advantage of being able to see footage of the artist and possibly lyrics at the bottom of the screen which will help prompt singing.
  • Make it a family project.  Music is one of those things that can cross the generations.  Hits were hits for a reason!   Great music played by superb musicians never goes bad.  The pieces we know as “classics” were to some extent the big hits of their day.  In particular, younger family members can use their technology skills to help build and manage the playlists.
  • Enjoy!  Repeat often!
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