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 simple listening. It’s a fact that music is something that most everyone enjoys, but can listen actually make the mind “move”? Absolutely, according to Kimmo Lehtonen, PhD and professor of education at the University of Turku (Finland) has been practicing clinical music therapy for more than 25 years. Believe it or not, therapists have been using the power of music in therapy to promote memory and encourage patients to feel a sense of self in the treatment of memory issues related to forms of dementia. 

In this article, we will cover the connection of music and memory, as well as the benefits of music therapy for dementia patients. 


Benefits of Music in Dementia Care

Music has been used in the treatment of older adults with dementia for centuries now. However, it wasn’t until just recently that the study of the impact of music on dementia patients has been re-opened for extensive modern research. 

In recent years, studies have shown scientific evidence of the effect music has on people with dementia, and the results are striking. Researchers are deeming music therapy to me just as impactful as medicine, both in patients receiving in-home care and those in long-term care facilities. In fact, one study’s findings were as follows: After 20 minutes of listening to music, patients with Alzheimer’s disease saw an immediate, measurable increase in happiness, eye contact, talkativeness and a decrease in fatigue. 

Neuroscientists are now describing the effect of music on patients with dementia as “lifting the haze”. There are immense benefits in regularly playing music for patients with Ahzheimer’s 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 can now be recorded in various ways, proving just how beneficial this approach is on one’s physical and emotional well-being. 


Music Therapy Through Various Stages of Dementia

Early Stage Dementia

During the early stages of dementia, both playing recorded music and singing are highly encouraged. This is because the “fun” aspect of music can be incredibly motivating, and often elicit feelings of happiness and accomplishment. It’s also important to note that by compiling a list of a dementia patient’s favorite songs during the early stages of dementia can help trigger memories of joy and jog one’s memory by playing these favorite songs during later, more progressive stages of the disease. Patients tend to access memories and connect them with moments while listening to certain pieces of music that once made them happy. 

TIP: These familiar songs are enormously helpful for caregivers when communicating becomes more difficult during the later stages of dementia.

Middle Stage Dementia

In the middle stages of dementia, it can grow increasingly difficult for family members and caregivers 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 recorded music with happy memories attached can distract a patient during bouts of discouragement or lack of desire to perform daily tasks. Additionally, music has been shown to help encourage physical activities like exercise – listening to some happy tunes during a walk, for instance, often results in walking further and at an increased pace when compared to taking a walk without music. 

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

Well, music can aid in getting a patient to fall asleep and stay asleep for longer periods of time. Regularly listening to relaxing music during bedtime has been shown to elevate levels of melatonin throughout the body, a hormone that helps regulate sleep and prevent insomnia

Late Stage Dementia

During the late stages of dementia, or advanced dementia, those playlists of favorite songs you compiled earlier start to really come in handy. These beloved and special songs will help relieve stress and reduce feelings of agitation and restlessness. Patients in the later stages of 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 hear songs they used to love. Doing so can also lessen fatigue, which often comes with a dementia diagnosis.


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, reminds us of good memories, etc. It’s almost like a natural reward, as it buzzes when these music pieces play. 

The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response can be tracked through the use of MRIs. Scientists will use MRIs to analyze when this specific pleasure response occurs, and they’ve been able to discover some incredible information regarding Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers – This specific 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 past memories, and the results of this sensation are always pleasurable. 

What’s so amazing is that music is able to 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 prior-to being tested. When the brain is exposed to music, songs are able to demonstrably boost one’s thinking ability. 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 in either groups, or one-on-one therapy sessions. As mentioned above, music therapy has been found to be particularly beneficial in older adults with dementia.

According to Lehtonen (mentioned above), “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.”

Music therapy is used to improve overall mental and physical wellbeing of patients with dementia, including the following areas:

  • Memory recall
  • Positive changes in mood or emotional states
  • A sense of control over life
  • Non-pharmacological management of pain and discomfort
  • Stimulation that promotes interest even when other approaches are ineffective
  • Structure that promotes 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)

That said, music is used in dementia patients in order to maintain and/or increase their levels of mental, physical, social and emotional functioning. When music is used as to invoke sensory and intellectual stimulation, it can help to maintain a person’s quality of life. In fact, it has been shown to improve one’s quality of life. 


Music in Sound & Interpretation 

Although music therapy is used for people of all ages, as we stated before, it is especially helpful for older patients with dementia who may be unable to communicate in another way. Music can act as an interpreter of the patient’s world picture without the problem essentially connected with verbal interaction. 

Due to the fact that dementia is a degenerative condition, the basic expression of one’s needs and emotions can become problematic and lead to feelings of isolation for sufferers. Music therapy and the use of songs to communicate can help promote another form of communication for these patients. In addition, singing offers a communicative structure, it stimulates and enables dialogue. 

Alicia Ann Clair, PhD 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 were once accessible only during childhood are now available throughout the lifespan, either through group lessons or private instruction.”

Both group and individual music therapy settings promote communication between therapists and patients. A musical approach is one of the most engaging and emotionally powerful stimuli. Listening to music has a strong effect on one’s mood, thinking, and even their 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 very much linked, that is because music is charged emotionally, so it 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 sand 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 sand 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 be used to not only treat elders with dementia, but also prevent the disease from developing. “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 obviously strong evidence that people who regularly exercise are healthier and happier than those who do not. That said, it can grow more and 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 exercises. For example, increasing the pace, force, direction or number of repetitions should have music that encourages these types of 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 activities and events where they will be present. If you find they are having a difficult time with certain tasks, try and make music a part of accomplishing said tasks. This can increase their mood and lessen feelings of exhaustion that often come with having any type of dementia. 



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 to engage in musical therapy and activities as possible. You can also involve yourself in helpful musical engagement by incorporating music in activities you do with them. 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 some sort of music therapy if they are struggling with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.