It’s no question that at some point in your life, you’ve had a song melody stuck in your head. Maybe you were at a family gathering, and The Wiz was on the TV. Or perhaps you were cleaning out your car and found an old cassette tape. Studies show that music is also a powerful tool in fighting Alzheimer’s and other dementias. This is because certain parts of the brain in which musical memory is stored are untouched by Alzheimer’s.
“I’ve seen older people that are in some state of dementia, but when they sit down to the instrument, they can play,” says Kenneth Thompkins, principal trombone of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Throughout his career, he has experienced the influence of music on performers and their audiences. Classic music in particular, he says, has a way of transcending language, time, and space to reach the heart.
“Having the direct experience of going to a live performance and you’re hearing an ensemble — 80 to 100 people playing acoustically — that’s very, very powerful. Just the sight of it is powerful.
In 2021, legendary singer Tony Bennett opened up about his battle with Alzheimer’s. In the midst of his public struggle with the disease, the 95-year-old performed with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall.
“He got up there and did it because that was his life. That’s what he’s done forever,” Thompkins says. “That’s part of the memory. That’s hardwired, at this point, in his brain.”
Researcher Deepa Rajan was curious about the relationship between music and memory, so she conducted a short-term clinical study at a nursing home with help from a licensed musical therapist.
“People who could not even remember the names of their sons and daughters could suddenly remember the lyrics to a song they hadn’t heard in decades,” she remembers.
In a TEDx talk, she explains that there are two forms of music therapy that can help people with Alzheimer’s symptoms: active therapy and receptive therapy.
Active music therapy encourages performance. It is involved and stimulating. You experience it at a nursing home or adult day care, or even on television. Receptive music therapy, on the other hand, is more individualized and focused on classical music. Genres aside, music, as a whole, stimulates connection, encourages creativity, and feeds the imagination.
If you’re looking to invite more music into your life as a caregiver or an Alzheimer’s patient, there are free music enrichment services, such as the San Francisco Bay-based Harmonies for the Elderly, the Tennessee-based Music for Seniors, and the AARP Virtual Community Center. Your insurance may cover tailored music therapy, too.