Whether you’re 80 or 8 years old, music is a universal language that people of any age can relate to and enjoy.

Music is not only influential on many levels, but its value reaches far beyond mere listening, especially in those that suffer from memory impairment. Most everyone enjoys music, but does listening to music make the mind “move” and improve quality of life? According to Kimmo Lehtonen, a Ph. D. and professor of education at the University of Turku (Finland), who has been practicing clinical music therapy for more than 25 years. A music therapist will use the power of music in therapy to promote memory recovery and encourage patients to feel a sense of self in the treatment of memory issues related to forms of dementia or stages of memory loss and forgetfulness. 

This article will cover the connection between music and memory, as well as the benefits of music intervention therapy for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Benefits of Music in Dementia Care

Music therapy sessions have been used to treat older adults with symptoms of dementia for centuries now. However, it wasn’t until just recently that the study of the impact of music on people with dementia or cognitive impairment has been re-opened for extensive modern research and clinical trials. 

In recent years, studies have shown scientific evidence of the effect of listening to music has on people with signs and symptoms of a decline in cognitive function, and the results are striking. Researchers are deeming musical intervention to be just as impactful as medications or over the counter drugs, both in patients receiving in-home care and those in long-term care facilities. One study’s findings were as follows: After 20 minutes of listening to music, dementia and Alzheimer’s patients saw an immediate, measurable increase in symptoms of happiness and talkativeness. There also was an increase in eye contact and a decline in fatigue and stress. 

Neuroscientists are describing the effect of music on patients with dementia as “lifting the haze” and helping increase their alertness in the world around them. There are immense benefits in regularly playing music for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, both in therapy and in regular activities that support stimulation. Known as “Music Therapy,” the study of music and its impact on memory problems can now be recorded in various ways, proving just how beneficial this approach is on one’s physical and emotional health and well-being. 


Music Therapy Through Various Stages of Dementia

Dementia is a broad medical category used to describe people with a decline in memory loss or other language or cognitive functioning. It is more than just short-term memory loss due to the normal aging process. There are over 100 forms of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for 60% to 80% of all cases. Sometimes it is even called Alzheimer’s dementia. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have also been linked to complex changes and cognitive decline of the brain. One of the changes is the reduced loss of connections between the nerve cells, brain cells, brain tissue, and the lack of blood flow. Common types of dementia or memory-related diseases include neurodegenerative disease, progressive dementia, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, Huntington’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, multi-infarct dementia, Pick’s disease, and Lewy body dementia among others. 

Early Stage Dementia

During the early stages of dementia or early-onset Alzheimer’s, both playing the patients’ preferred music and encouraging singing are highly encouraged during activities of daily living. This is because the “fun” aspect of music can be incredibly motivating, and often elicit feelings of happiness and accomplishment for the person with dementia or early Alzheimer’s experiencing memory lapses. It’s also important to note that compiling a list of the dementia patient’s preferred music and some favorite songs during the early signs of dementia can help during a later dementia stage. Relying on music memory and playing these favorite songs can trigger memories of joy and jog their memory. Someone with dementia-like symptoms or mild cognitive impairment tends to access memories and connect them with moments while listening to specific pieces of music that once made them happy. 

TIP: Playing a familiar song can be enormously helpful for the caregiver when caring for someone with mild dementia or problems with forgetfulness. Music becomes even more useful to the caregiver and nurses when communicating becomes more challenging during the later stages of dementia.

Mid-Stage Dementia

In the mid-stages of dementia, it can grow increasingly difficult for family members and the caregiver to play music for an aging senior, as they will have lost their ability to remember things at a high-functioning level. That said, playing once familiar music with happy memories attached can distract a patient with a diagnosis of dementia during bouts of discouragement, a lack of desire to perform daily activities, or not wanting to participate in social interaction. Additionally, music has been shown to help encourage those with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia to participate in a physical activity like walking or exercise, which can improve their mood, as well as lower blood pressure. Listening to happy tunes during a walk, for instance, often results in walking farther and at an increased pace when compared to walking without music. This applies to both those with cognitive problems and those without.

Did you know that sleep becomes harder to achieve in patients reaching mid-stage of dementia? 

Music can aid in getting a patient with signs of dementia to fall asleep and stay asleep for extended periods. Regularly listening to relaxing music during bedtime has been shown to elevate levels of melatonin throughout the body. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep and prevent insomnia and lowers the risk of them waking up and wandering around in the middle of the night. 

Late-Stage Dementia

During the late stages of dementia, or severe dementia, those playlists of favorite songs you compiled earlier start to come in handy as part of your individualized caregiving routine. These beloved and favorite songs will help relieve stress and reduce agitated behavior and restlessness. Patients in need of Alzheimer’s and dementia have been shown to exhibit feelings of happiness and increased mood when they hear music they like and may have distant familiarity with. Late-stage dementia patients are more responsive, with better eye contact and communication, when they listen to songs they used to love. Doing so can also lessen the risk factors of fatigue, depression, and high blood pressure, which often come with a dementia diagnosis. 

At some point, you may want to consider moving your loved one to a memory care residence or facility, when you can no longer monitor them around the clock and provide the constant support and assistance they require towards the later stages of dementia. They may benefit from living in memory care facilities or Alzheimer’s care facilities where they can be supervised and receive care from professional staff or licensed nurses 24/7.

Science Behind Music’s Impact on Dementia

The brain has a pleasure signal known as the “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” which is triggered by hearing music that we like — reminding us of good memories, etc.. It’s almost like a natural reward, as it buzzes when these music pieces play, for those in need of Alzheimer’s and dementia care. 

The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response can be tracked through the use of MRIs. Scientists will use MRIs to analyze when this pleasure response occurs, and they’ve discovered some incredible information regarding dementia and Alzheimer’s caregivers – this particular area of the brain is not affected by Alzheimer’s disease. That means music can access parts of the brain that are still fully functional within dementia patients, activating emotions, and even memories. The results of this sensation are always pleasurable. 

What’s so amazing is that music can trigger both sides of the brain (listening triggers the right side, and singing triggers the left side). Studies show that patients tested after listening to music had brain engagement levels significantly higher than those who did not listen to music before being tested. When the brain is exposed to music, songs can boost thinking ability and increase problem-solving skills. Things as simple as swallowing become easier if music is engaging the brain as a dementia patient eats. 

Music & Emotion

Music Therapy is a target-oriented type of therapy approach in which therapists use musical expression and the memories, sensations, and feelings it evokes. This is done either in groups or in one-on-one therapy sessions. As mentioned above, this type of therapy is particularly beneficial in older adults with dementia and those in need of Alzheimer’s care.

According to Lehtonen, “Music therapy has many faces. With older adults, I mainly use old wartime songs, which seem to bring many lively memories to their minds. Music has a close relationship with unconscious emotions, which are activated by musical movement. To me, music represents a microcosmos which has a close relationship to our inner feelings. These feelings are so strong, they’re meaningful even if patients cannot remember who they are.”

This therapy improves mental and physical health of patients with dementia, including the following areas:

  • Memory recall
  • Positive changes in mood or emotional states
  • A sense of control over life, and daily activities, like making meals, bathing, or hygiene
  • Non-pharmacological management of pain and discomfort
  • Stimulation that encourages interest even when other approaches are ineffective
  • Structures that promote rhythmic and continuous movement or vocal frequency as an adjunct to physical rehabilitation
  • Opportunities to interact socially with others (group therapy and listening to music/singing in groups)

Although music intervention therapy can reduce some psychiatric symptoms, it may not be the best treatment for all, including those with anxiety. That said, music maintains and increases mental, physical, social, and emotional functioning in those with dementia symptoms. Music can help maintain a person’s quality of life and improve mental health by reducing depressive symptoms when used to invoke intellectual and sensory stimulation. 

Music in Sound & Interpretation 

Although musical intervention is used for people of all ages, it is especially helpful for people with memory loss and dementia who may be unable to communicate or interact with their environment in any other way. Music can interpret the patient’s world picture without the inherent problem connected with verbal interaction. 

Because dementia is a degenerative condition, the fundamental expression of one’s needs and emotions can become problematic and lead to feelings of isolation for those that suffer from memory and aging impairment. Music therapy and the use of songs to communicate can help promote another form of communication for these patients as a form of Alzheimer’s treatment. Singing also offers a communicative structure, since it stimulates and enables dialogue. 

Alicia Ann Clair, Ph.D. and director of music education and therapy at the University of Kansas, says, “When older persons are interested in learning to make music or are looking for ways to rejuvenate skills learned in the past, many programs are available. Opportunities for learning music that was once accessible only during childhood are now available throughout the lifespan, either through group lessons or private instruction.”

Both group and individual therapy settings promote communication between the music therapist and residents with dementia. A musical approach is one of the most engaging and emotionally compelling stimuli. Listening to music has a strong effect on mood, thinking, and even psychology, which constitutes a probable reason certain songs remind us so vividly of a specific memory. With that in mind, memory is a mental system that receives, stores, organizes, alters, and recovers information from sensory input. Memory and emotions are strongly linked because music is charged emotionally and can trigger both good and bad memories from the past. 

This triggering of memories through music can also promote communication within an older patient, essentially providing him or her with a renewed sense of identity. Lehtonen recalls a specific memory where music opened a line of communication in an older patient of hers, “This experience was very strong and beautiful. I used to work as a supervisor of music therapy research. The therapist has a video camera set up in every session, and afterward, we would analyze the tapes. In this case, the therapist sang old Finnish folk songs to an over 80-year-old man with dementia. After every song, the man sang his own song in a broken voice. He sang old Italian romantic songs, which were quite difficult. He exactly remembered melodies and words, and he sang many songs during these sessions. His voice and expression were so strong and authentic they put a shiver down my spine. I checked his personal history. This old man, who hardly remembered his name, spent his best years in Florence, where he worked as an interior architect.”

Lehtonen is a firm believer that music therapy can not only be used to treat elders with dementia, but also to prevent the disease from developing in the first place. “In Finland, the after-war generation is getting old, and there are more and more elderly people who are in a relatively good condition both physically and psychically. I think this kind of remembering through music is a good way of keeping people happy and active.”

Physical Benefits of Music Therapy

There’s strong evidence that people who regularly exercise are healthier and happier than those who do not. That said, it can grow more difficult for patients with dementia to spend time working out, for many reasons. One of which is a lack of motivation. That is where music can come in to play.

It’s been proven that music can effectively encourage and support exercise in dementia patients. However, the right types of music should be selected for various activities. For example, increasing the pace, force, direction, or the number of repetitions should use music that encourages these variations. 

How Can You Help?

If you’re interested in locating a reputable and certified Music & Memory care home or residence in your area, you can visit that resource website here.

You can also support music therapy for the senior loved one in your life by involving music in social activities and events where they will be present. If you find they are having a difficult time with specific tasks, try and make music a part of accomplishing said jobs. This can increase their mood and lessen feelings of exhaustion that often come with having any type of dementia or Alzheimer’s symptoms. 


Now that you have a better understanding of the positive effects music therapy has on dementia patients, it’s up to you to ensure that your senior loved one is provided with as many opportunities as possible to engage in musical therapy and activities. You can also involve yourself in musical engagement by incorporating music in activities you do with those with signs of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Remember, there are many resources out there for seniors struggling with dementia – music therapy is one of them. You should try and get your senior loved one involved in music therapy if they are struggling with stages of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.