5 Reasons Why Music Boosts Brain Activity

Music is understood to be a great way to break through to dementia patients, but do you know why? A new study shows us how music helps those suffering with Alzheimer’s disease. Learn more.

5 Reasons Why Music Boosts Brain Activity

Music has been known to affect those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, but why it has an effect on these patients has not always been clear – until now.

Music Helps Dementia Patients Recall Memories and Emotions

A recent study shows that dementia and Alzheimer’s patients can recall memories and emotions, and have enhanced mental performance after singing classic hits and show tunes from movies and musicals — a breakthrough in understanding how music affects those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Researchers determined the effect music has on dementia patients, by leading half of the participants through selected songs while the other half listened to the music being played. After the musical treatment, all participants took cognitive ability and life satisfaction tests. which showed how participants scored significantly better when being lead through songs, rather than only listening.

Here are five reasons why researchers believe that music boosts brain activity:

1. Music evokes emotions that bring memories.

Music can evoke emotion in even the most advanced of Alzheimer’s patients. Neurologist Oliver Sacks says that, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” By pairing music with every day activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to the recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time.

2. Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients.

Linda Maguire, lead author on the study wrote, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s.” Because these two abilities remain long after other abilities have passed, music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.

3. Music can bring emotional and physical closeness.

In the later stages of dementia, patients often lose the ability to share emotions with caregivers. Through music, as long as they are ambulatory, they can often dance. Dancing can lead to hugs, kisses and touching which brings security and memories.

4. Singing is engaging.

The singing sessions in the study engaged more than just the brain and the area related to singing. As singing activated the left side of the brain, listening to music sparked activity in the right and watching the class activated visual areas of the brain. With so much of the brain being stimulated, the patients were exercising more mind power than usual.

5. Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has an entire web page dedicated to music therapy in Alzheimer’s patients. They say that, “When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements.” This is because music requires little to no mental processing, so singing music does not require the cognitive function that is not present in most dementia patients.

Which Musicals or Movies Work Best?

Getting a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s  to engage with music and movies may depend on which  genre they enjoy the most. But, the suggestions below can help you get started:

  • The Sound of Music
  • When You Wish Upon a Star (from Pinocchio)
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz)

Dr. Jane Flinn, a researcher from George Mason University says that the study should encourage caregivers.

“The message is: do not give up on these men and women. You want to be performing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, effortless and engaging.”

Do you or a loved one have any experience with music therapy for dementia? Share your story in the comments below.

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Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • Amily G

    I am a big fan of using music to help dementia patient’s moods and memories. If you haven’t seen it, there is a wonderful, moving, video of patients reactions to music, when they are given iPods full of their favorite music: [Link Removed] . Dr. Oliver Sacks was involved in the project, and is fascinating to listen to. You can see how each individual has their own favorite music – music which is most connected to their earlier memories, and which has the strongest potential to help improve their mood.

    • Cathy

      My husband has Alzheimer’s. He is 20 years older than me. I’ll put the music he used to listen on and he sings the songs and sometimes he cries a little. The man hardly speaks at all but he remembers the words to the songs! Amazing

      • My Mother is 84 has dementia and the first we do is to listen to music. Lately I found out that she liked Tim McGraw especially the album “Live like you were dying”. She could tell me which songs she liked more than others. Surprisingly because she was never listening to country only to italian music as we are italians and live in Switzerland.

  • mj

    My 86 yr old mother who has Dementia is typically restless if her music isn’t played. She moves to the music in her wheel chair and allows me to do my chores while she dances and listens to her music. It even promotes her dietary intake. She likes listening to music during meals as well… Music has been such a help in caring for my mom!

  • Tammy

    I recall seeing the TV program about just how effective music therapy is for those suffering from dementia. My father-in-law is now in a nursing home and I am trying to figure out an appropriate Christmas gift for him. The idea again dawned on me today and I “googled” the subject. Little did I know that the article was written by a free lance journalist I worked closely with at Luke AFB! Talk about a small world! Alissa – congrats on the birth of your daughter and best wishing to you and your family. Tammy

  • Traci Stanley

    About 6 months ago I thought I would start doing the music therapy on my mother. She has had Alzheimers for about 2 years and she was starting to get agitated at everything and wouldn’t take her medicine anymore. She was beginning not to know my Dad anymore. I saw the Alive Inside Preview and I knew I was going to do everything I could to help my mother. She loves Elvis Presley and other songs that play on Elvis Presley readio station on Pandora so everyday for 2 hours in the evenings we listen to music that she loves. She sings and moves and is really happy when she hears that music.

  • Roger Bush

    Has any ever been carried out regarding the huge benefit of actually playing a musical instrument to prevent, or delay the onset of dementia? Reading and playing music is a very intensive activity – interpreting printed notation at very high speeds and converting the notes into actions requiring totally independent finger dexterity of both hands (and feet, if you are an organist) of the highest order. Practicing and playing new music is constantly training the brain in new directions. I can’t think of another human activity which requires so much mental and rapid physical effort. Very few musicians I have known, or known nationally, seem to be affected by dementia. There’s got to be a connection but no-one seems to have investigated it.

    • John

      Is there more info on the actual playing of instrument?
      I have Alzheimer, and starting to forget things, but playing a mandolin daily seems to help
      retaining some of the music.

    • Jo Ann Koepke

      Roger, My intense love of music is most likely the main reason I do not have alzheimer’s. I am starting a music center as well as art and poetry writing here in Norfolk,Ne for low-income and disabled kids. I have serious disabilities Lupus, traumatic brain injury and epilepsy. I also have a severe pain problem. One thing I am finding as I work to prepare for teaching is that I am getting better. By better I mean things like being able to remember words. I was even getting lost in my own apartment. I could never remember what day it was. Now I am going to be getting my Ph.D. in music, art and poetry writing as healing tools and tools that can truly heal a person. One last thing, a year ago I could not even balance my checkbook. Now I am reviewing the calculus and differential equations I studied almost 40 years ago and it is all coming back . My center’s name is Joanna’s Peace Garden. I will be doing a website soon. so you can look it up if you want to . I am also going to have a face book page. Jo Ann Koepke

      • Jean

        How wonderful that through extra mental activity (Ph.D in three subjects) and your awesome ability to even THINK about the maths side of things is really helping you. A wonderfully uplifting story…I wish you luck. Jean U.K.

  • Marc DeRuiter

    I have been doing live, interactive music with dementia patients in facilities for 11 years now. We get them moving – hand-clapping, deep breathing, foot tapping, along with singing. Good for the body, brain, and soul. What a beautiful dichotomy – memory-impaired people sing from…memory! Facebook: Eldermusic, Inc. and on the web @ eldermusic.net

  • Juan Mas

    My Mother is 84 has dementia and the first we do is to listen to music. Lately I found out that she liked Tim McGraw especially the album “Live like you were dying”. She could tell me which songs she liked more than others. Surprisingly because she was never listening to country only to italian music as we are italians and live in Switzerland.

  • Paul Collins

    South Pacific does it for Maureen every time as it reminds her of younger days when she was caring for her children. She also loves Christie Hennessy particularly ‘Star’ and she has learned most of the words to what is a new song for her: neuroplasticity in action!

  • What if the patient is stone deaf? Seriously. My mother scores 7% comprehension on hearing tests.

  • Kerry K

    I have early onset Alzheimer’s and my iPod shuffle is full of 80’s music and one playlist of a an 8 track I had as a small child called Fantastic Hits by ktel. Oh the memories it brings to me!

  • Verity Bird

    Singing was the last thing my mother asked to do with me – Somewhere over the rainbow. We had Iz Kamakowewo’ole’s Wonderful World/Over the rainbow at her funeral…

  • Harry III

    I suffered a brain injury in a car wreck over 30 years ago. My mental capacities while not bad after 10 months of 5 day-a-week neurological retraining, excelled 15 years later after singing in my church’s choir. Still singing and being able to do great things! Finished my B.S. and did a Masters Degree, applied for Mensa (didn’t make it but able to take test), run 9 marathons, learned 3 languages after living a couple summers in Romania and Spanish. Music uses both sides of the brain simultaneously.

  • Alena

    Me as well! I suffered from a wreck with a 4×4 truck not to long ago.. like 13 years ago and music let me heal so much quicker.

  • I also think that this idea is good but not listening to music while doing other type of work.

  • Jane Moore

    My mother’s legs were giving way and tired after a long walk and, as I could not carry her, I sang her favourite Strauss waltzes to her and she danced her way back. She could not walk but gained new strength in dancing to the music! Music is the greatest find in dementia care!

  • Suzanne Boston Lyon

    I am a former memory care director and we used many forms of music with our residents with dementia. I also created LifeSongs recordable books. They can be personalized with photos and12 recordings of their favorite music. Great way to stimulate and engage them and caregivers. You can order one on Amazon or LifeSongs.info.

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