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Senior woman at home listening to music with smartphone and headphones.

Music and Memory Loss

Roger Miller Clinical Psychologist Aviv Clinics by Roger Miller, Ph.D. , Neuropsychologist
February 11, 2022
Senior woman at home listening to music with smartphone and headphones.

Music has a special way of unlocking the memory bank. For a person with Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive impairment, hearing a familiar song can trigger a memory, evoke an emotion, and enhance brain performance.

Studies have shown music can have a profound effect on people with memory loss conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. That growing body of evidence has led some long-term care facilities and caregivers to use music therapy to entertain, soothe, and help socialize residents with dementia and other memory loss issues.

Music is a part of almost everyone’s life. As early as infancy, music may be used to soothe a colicky baby. For many, music often serves as a soothing distraction, to elevate mood, as a motivator while exercising, or as a relaxation technique at bedtime. For others, music may be played as background noise as they go about their daily lives. Music may be such an ever-present fixture in everyday life that it becomes woven into the fabric of the brain. While listening to music, emotions are stirred and memories are stored, creating a link that ultimately becomes associated with a time, a person, or a place.

Why does music unlock memories? It activates those areas of the brain that are associated with memory and emotions: the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. When these areas of the brain are stimulated, they trigger the release of stored memories at the sound of a song. 

Music’s effects on the mind

Music can have a powerful effect on the psyche. For a person with dementia or in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, music reduces agitation, soothes the spirit, and improves behavior and focus, research shows. Here’s how music affects the brain:

  • Music stimulates the brain by evoking an emotion that triggers a memory. For someone with memory loss, hearing a familiar song has the potential to transport them back to a time in life that was pleasurable.
  • It provides comfort. A person with cognitive decline can become easily agitated. Music has a way of reducing agitation and instilling a sense of calm. When someone is calm, they tend to focus better.
  • Music elevates mood and reduces stress. Playing music activates a part of the brain that can improve mood and reduce anxiety, especially if it is music that’s familiar and well-liked. Studies have shown different types of music also play a part in whether it works to uplift or is counterproductive. Soothing music at less than 100 beats per minute, such as classical music, has been found to have a positive effect on memory and cognition. 
  • It creates a connection without verbal communication. For someone in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, communicating may be difficult if not impossible when words finally elude them. Expose them to a song from childhood or their teenage years and a person with memory loss may break out singing or dancing. It’s not uncommon for an Alzheimer’s patient, unable to speak, to sit down at a piano and proceed to play and sing.

 

Famed musicians, like Tony Bennett who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, are still able to perform and remember the lyrics despite memory impairment. However, learning new songs and remembering them is unlikely because of the disease’s progression. 

Music has also been used as a therapeutic method to help stroke patients with aphasia to re-learn speech. They may not be able to converse, but they can sing a familiar tune. Using music can stimulate different parts of the brain to relearn and improve speech.

Are you a caregiver? Music can make a difference

To use music to trigger pleasant memories, boost mood, and soothe a loved one with memory-loss issues, try these tips from the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Choose music your loved one is familiar with and once enjoyed. If they’re able, encourage them to offer suggestions for their customized playlist.
  • Play music that’s commercial-free otherwise the interruptions can be disruptive and confusing for them.
  • Base your choice of music on the emotion you’re trying to invoke. A tranquil piece can induce a calm and serene feeling while a faster-paced song from their childhood might help elevate mood and evoke happy memories.
  • Enhance their experience by encouraging them to tap to the beat, clap, or dance.
  • Keep distractions to a minimum. Avoid other background sounds like TV or traffic noise. And keep the music volume at a comfortable level. If it’s too loud, it could lead to aggression or agitation.

The bottom line

The link between music and memory is significant. Studies show hearing musical pieces from the past can trigger strong emotions, and mainly positive ones because of their nostalgic connection. And not only does music trigger strong emotions and memories, but it can also boost mood, calm anxiety, and quell confusion in someone with cognitive decline.

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