Dementia and Music: Unlocking Memories, Nurturing Well-being!

by | Jun 21, 2022 | Connected, Innovations, Tips and Advice

Do you ever find yourself singing along to a tune when it comes on the radio?

You haven’t heard the tune for years. And yet suddenly, the words just come spilling out. Hidden in some forgotten cavity in the back of your brain, where they have lain locked up for decades.  Every word is sung with meticulous precision to the beat.  Your head starts to bob, and your hips are in perfect harmony.  Even before you get to the chorus, you feel as if you are being transported back in time. Back to a crowded dance floor or a room full of friends belting out every note.  You begin to feel everything as if you were there, the younger version of you.

“Dignity” by Scottish band Deacon Blue certainly has this effect on me:

And I’ll sail her up the west coast

Through villages and towns

I’ll be on my holidays

They’ll be doing their rounds

They’ll ask me how I got here, and I’ll say, ” I saved my money.”

They’ll say isn’t she pretty that ship called dignity

Places, people, and emotions linked to those words fall effortlessly into place.  The words stay with you. Popping in and out of your head as you go about your day. That feel-good segment of your mind well and truly opened.

Backed by Research

Well, this feel-good experience isn’t just happening by chance.  Flashbacks to our past upon hearing a familiar piece of music is an intriguing phenomenon. It’s referred to by researchers as music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs).  Music triggers moments from our past. 

Over a decade ago, when we listened to a song, our brain found it easy to store the lyrics and beats. The reason is that we connected with it emotionally.  We saved that memory as a whole.  In other words, the blue sky, the surrounding countryside, the people we were with, and how we felt.  Music is truly a powerful tool to induce emotions and, thus, evoke memories.

An interesting study carried out at the University of Utah has found that when we hear a piece of familiar music, our brain enacts something called  Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). We experience a feeling of tingling or a buzz in our scalp. This activates our emotions, leaving us feeling happy and relaxed or melancholy or a whole host of other emotions.  Recent research confirms this “positivity” effect associated with music.  In the case of people with dementia, it’s referred to as an “island of preservation”. Amidst the cognitive impairment associated with dementia. 

Music helps unlock memories by providing a rhythm, rhyme, and sometimes alliteration. This allows us to open information with cues and prompts.  The song’s structure helps us remember it and the melody and the images the words provoke.  Neuroscientific studies confirm this by demonstrating brain mechanisms related to memory, finding that words set to music are the easiest to remember.

Why do musical memories differ from other long-term memories?

Musical memories tend to survive during dementia onset and progression, even when other long-term memories do not.  This is because musical memories are processed in an area of the brain separate from the network of regions involved in long-term memory. 

When we try to retrieve a long-term memory such as a personal event, knowledge, or experience from the past, the brain uses a part of the brain known as the hippocampus.  More specifically:

  • Temporal and frontal lobes when we try to retrieve information.
  • The occipital lobe is when we try to visualise something.

According to a recent study, when we listen to music, an area of the brain known as the “musical memory region” enables us to remember our favourite songs.  Importantly, this region is separate from the hippocampus and the temporal lobe which we know is necessary for long-term memory function.  Researchers found the “musical memory region” of the brain to be well preserved over the course of Alzheimer’s disease.  In other words, musical appreciation, musical emotion, and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory, and cognitive function have disappeared.  According to research, the effects of MEAMs on older people also tend to be even more vivid and positive than younger people.

Music is a Universal Language

There’s no doubt that the relationship between music and memory is powerful.  Listening to, and enjoying music, is a universal experience.  Every man, woman, and child relates to music in one way or another.  It’s part of our culture and our identity.  It lifts us up.  It calms us down.  It inspires, comforts, motivates, and relaxes us.  As the philosopher Plato said:

“Music gives a soul to the universe,

wings to the mind,

flight to the imagination,

and life to everything.”

Music in the setting of dementia

Music offers many benefits for people with dementia.  It can help relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression, bring back long-lost memories, and thus enhance well-being.  It is helpful in all stages of dementia through to the end of life

Here we share Henry’s experience of music, aptly named Alive Inside.  Marta Cinta González Saldaña is the elderly star of this recent viral video.  A previous prima ballerina, we see how, when a pair of headphones are placed on Marta’s ears, playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, she begins to remember and moves her head and arms to the music as she did decades prior.

Music helps stimulate the brain and energise the spirit, thereby increasing the quality of life for people with dementia who can easily find themselves frightened and lost in feelings of isolation.  It can help provide a welcome release from the worry and feelings of helplessness that can creep in.

Expression

Music is an extremely powerful and effective communication tool for people with dementia in all of its forms.  Person-centred music therapy provides deep spiritual and emotional connections.  One of the first symptoms that challenge people with dementia is the inability to convey thoughts and ideas.  However, music offers a non-verbal art form, providing an avenue for spiritual, emotional, and cultural expression and connection that can reflect the personhood of someone with dementia.  In short, it offers feel-good moments and experiences that can be relieved over and over again.

Connection

Music therapy is a valuable tool for enabling connection with others, improving feelings of well-being, and increasing quality of life.  People with dementia live in a world that can, in many ways, become confusing and disconnected.  They can begin to lose touch with who they are as a person.  However, when the person sings or takes part in a musical experience, a sense of connection and oneness can be experienced.  Music is a great way to increase socialisation, communication, and meaningful interactions with others, whether singing individually or in singing groups.  It can help people with dementia to re-engage with themselves and others.  It can reunite them with who they are and their uniqueness, which often becomes buried under the layers of symptoms that come with a diagnosis of dementia.

Maintaining Ability

Music is not just about helping to evoke past memories.  People with dementia can still learn new songs even during the advanced stages of  Alzheimer’s disease.  They can detect wrong notes in familiar songs and play instruments such as the guitar and piano.  This activity is excellent for people to reaffirm their identity and sense of belonging as valuable people and contributors to the family.  It helps to maintain a sense of ongoing “normality”, especially when faced with having to cope with a new diagnosis of dementia.

Music ideas and activities at home

With recent advances in technology, music is increasingly easy to access.  Some ideas to help bring more music into home life include:

Creating a personalised playlist

Creating a playlist (or even mixing CD or tape) of you or your loved one’s favourite and most memorable songs can be a great tool if you are having a difficult day.  Musical preference is very individual, and the emotions we have when hearing certain songs is deeply personal.  Listening to a particular playlist while sitting at home, out for a walk, or even dancing can be even more beneficial.

Playlist for life is a charity set up by TV news presenter Sally Magnusson whose mother had dementia.  

In the video below, Sally shares some of her reasons for setting up the charity:

The charity has lots of advice on creating a dementia playlist.  It offers a vast selection of songs to make your own playlist as well as ready-made playlists, such as those for each decade.  Favourites among a Scottish audience include the “Place: Scotland – favourite” playlist, which is available on the playlist for life website or Spotify.  This popular downloadable album contains songs such as the:

Skye Boat Song Mhairi’s Wedding Flower of Scotland The Northern Lights of Auld Aberdeen

Bonnie Wee Jeannie McCall I Belong to Glasgow Flower of Scotland Auntie Mary

Music at our Fingertips

BBC Music Memories has lists of songs specially chosen to aid with dementia and that are great to sing along to, from pub songs to television theme songs.

Music for dementia m4d radio is a group of five internet radio stations launched in June 2020 and celebrated 30,000 listeners in its first month alone.  You can select to listen to the day’s mix or choose music based on when you were born.  m4d radio is free and available 24 hours a day, all year round, and you can listen here.

Singing for the brain is run by The Alzheimer’s Society and offers group singing sessions for people with dementia and their carers.  These are designed to be sociable as well as a brain-boosting activity.  Its founder, Chreanne Montgomery-Smith, said she came up with the idea after seeing the effect of singing in a care home:

“One lady who didn’t know her name knew every song in the quiz and sang them all. It made me realise that people with dementia had a special ability to remember songs.  Even if people with dementia can’t talk, they may be able to sing, whistle, clap or tap their feet.  It helps them and their carers to feel life is worthwhile.”

For more information, click here.

Engage in Music Therapy

Professional music therapists use music to connect and communicate with clients.  In the same way, other therapists get people to talk through their troubles, and music therapists help people express and work through their emotions using instruments or singing.  You can seek individual sessions with a therapist or attend a group session.

Nordoff Robbins is a company with offices in Scotland that specialise in providing music therapy for a whole range of conditions, including dementia.  You can find out more about it here.  Or, to see what’s available in your area, you can have a look at the British Association for Music Therapy’s interactive map or check out the Music Therapy Charity for more information.

Useful Resources

There are many initiatives in the UK to help spread the word on the importance of music for people with dementia. 

  • Music for dementia is looking for members to join its national campaign to highlight the value and importance of music in dementia care.  One of their key aims is to ensure that every person with dementia has music as an integral part of their care plan.  Indeed, this helpful resource offers loads of tips and advice on making the most of music while living at home or in a care home.
  • Live music Now the UK and Live Music Now Scotland are committed to making live music available to everyone from 0 to 100 years old.
  • Memory Tracks App is a new initiative that “helps stimulate memory, manage agitation, assist with care, and support important daily routines through song-task association”.  Read here about the research into how this new app helps support people with dementia.
  • YouTube is a quick and easy way to listen to music. Furthermore, individual songs can be selected or playlists such as:
  • Spotify is a music service with an almost unlimited range of songs and artists.  It’s easy to set up, with easy-to-follow instructions for downloading software for your computer or smartphone.
  • Amazon offers access to various music streaming services through Alexa, including m4d radio, Radio Reminisce, Vintage Radio, Old-Time,  Radio V2.

We are always looking for new ways to live well with dementia.  Music, amongst other things, offers everyone a great way to connect.  Having a diagnosis of dementia need not undermine this. 

Music is a way of assuring yourself as a carer that the person is still there.

The great thing about it is that the person can be found there, again and again.

Further Information

Using music therapy for dementia at home

Can music help someone with Alzheimer’s?

Music and Dementia: An Overview

The Role of Music in Dementia Care

Music for Dementia

Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease

Music: the last thing we forget

Why does music evoke memories?

Why do songs from your past evoke such vivid memories?

Thank you for reading this post. If you have found it informative, please spread the word by sharing it with others. Take care.

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