Music Therapy to Help with Dementia

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS)

Music therapy, uses emotional responses to try to improve a person’s sense of wellbeing through both listening to and joining in with voices or instruments.

Music has the power to move people. The melody, words, or context can inspire joy or deep sorrow. Music can provide very personal experiences: Songs can both move people to tears and make them jump around the bedroom, yelling lyrics into a hairbrush or strumming the life out of an air guitar. Music can also have a powerful effect on groups of people in congregations and audiences, from the sacred connections formed while singing hymns in church to the equally spiritual experience of singing along with a band in a field at a music festival, arms raised, cigarette lighters aglow.

Looking at music and the brain

Music was probably a feature of human civilization from the very start. Music is ubiquitous; every culture has a musical tradition. It’s easy to imagine early ancestors in Africa’s Rift Valley singing and playing instruments while hanging out around the campfire.

In fact, archaeologists have found flutes carved from animal bones and horns at sites in Germany dating back at least 35,000 years. Although not quite providing evidence all the way back to human origins, this find nonetheless demonstrates that music has been important enough to have been passed on generation after generation. Given that it has no obvious value in terms of survival, why has music become so pervasive in human society?

Neuroscientist Robert Zatorre from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, leads a research team trying to answer that question. Using modern scanning techniques, the team has shown that when people experience a spine-tingling feeling when listening to a favorite tune, a corresponding release of the chemical neurotransmitter dopamine occurs in a part of the brain called the striatum. The brain has similar responses to food and sex in this region, and some addictive drugs like cocaine also artificially stimulate it.

The effect of music on the brain is a fascinating and evolving area of research. But the fact that it leads to an emotional reward no doubt goes some way to explaining why it touches most people so profoundly. Add this to the discovery by researchers in Berlin that musical memories are stored differently than other memories and are therefore still retrievable by people with dementia, and it’s easy to see how listening to music and singing along may be therapeutic.

Two main types of therapy are available:

  • Receptive therapy: The therapist plays and sings, and the audience simply listens.
  • Active therapy: People are encouraged to join in singing and playing simple instruments.

Understanding music therapy’s effectiveness

The effect of music on Marjorie (refer to the nearby sidebar) and other people with dementia shows that music therapy works in ways that other treatments for dementia can’t. Music clearly allowed a connection with Marjorie not otherwise seen. And a wealth of research evidence backs up anecdotal examples such as Marjorie’s. And although these studies are often small scale and therefore not able to draw the hard-and-fast conclusions of large studies, plenty of evidence suggests that in moderate to severe dementia, music therapy

  • Can reduce the occurrence and severity of troublesome behavioral problems
  • Reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Improves communication and social functioning
  • Reduces blood pressure

Music therapy is also, of course, free from side effects and doesn’t interact with other forms of treatment. It’s definitely worth a try.