Dementia & Music

Music & Dementia

Seeing a loved one slowly fade, memory by memory, can be heartbreaking for a family to witness and devastating for the individual with the disease. However, music has offered many families a back door into the mind and a new chance to connect with their loved ones. Lately, researches have focused on how music can benefit those with Alzheimer’s disease in a variety of ways.  

Alive Inside

It is an equally compelling and mysterious scene when a non-verbal Alzheimer’s patient, suddenly alert, begins to sing the lyrics from a favorite song, word-for-word. Music therapists have witnessed the link between music and memory and tried to tap into this secret well while carefully selecting songs.  Even when a family member may not remember the name of a son or daughter, a brief moment of singing together can restore that lost connection. According to Dr. Oliver Sacks, a noted neurologist and author, “The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity.” While the life story and memories have been lost to the person with dementia, there seems to be a secret biography in the songs of their past that can briefly return them to themselves.

You can’t talk about the power of music on individuals with dementia without talking about a non-profit group - Music & Memory - which has been bringing personalized music into the lives of the elderly. Customized music has assisted individuals who suffer from a variety of diseases besides dementia such as a stroke, MS, Parkinson’s, bipolar disease, and much more.  For more information on the non-profit or the film, visit

Music: The Tool of the Caregiver

Music has the power to change our mood almost immediately. It can rally, enliven, sooth, and most importantly, it can transport us from the present moment. For family members providing care for a loved-one with dementia, playing music can be a powerful tool in dealing with difficult behaviors resulting from the disease. Songs from their generation provide a connection and can help redirect them from a topic or activity that is upsetting them. It can also be used to cue someone to transition or complete a task. For example, if bathing or taking medications are points of conflict between the caregiver and the loved-one, consider putting on upbeat music right before bath or medication time. This can redefine the tone of the experience and dramatically reduce the stress surrounding activities of daily living. Alicia Clair, professor of music therapy at the University of Kansas suggests, “One of the best ways to get directions across is to sing, rather than speak, them.” While this may seem condescending or even ridiculous, music can access a different part of the brain than we use to process speech. 

If you are interested in creating your own list for a loved one here are Dan Cohen’s 4 tips on music and the elderly:

Get the playlist right. Find out the person's tastes and create a varied mix: no more than five to seven songs per artist. Have them weed out tracks that are so-so, so you end up with 100 or 200 songs that all resonate.

Keep it simple. Make sure the elder knows how to use the player or that someone nearby can help. Use "over-ear" headphones rather than ear buds, which can fall out.

Be patient. It can take time to reach the music memory. If the person is responding, feel free to sing along. If someone doesn't like the headphones, try a small speaker at first and incorporate the headphones gradually over time.

Keep it special. Don't leave the player on all the time. Nursing homes are finding it works well during transitions: If someone is hesitant to take a bath or eat or get dressed, music may help move things along.

Music Types Paired with Various Levels of Dementia

Mild Cognitive Impairment

  • Play their old favorites, songs that rekindle fond memories.
  • Play music and talk about the history of particular artists, genres, and eras. This allows the senior to remember specific moments and allows family members to hear stories they might not have known about.

Mild Dementia

  • Introduce new genres, artists, sounds, etc. Take cues from the individual if they aren’t enjoying these new sounds. Most of the time, they will be receptive to something new!
  • Use lyric sheets or karaoke on youtube, so the senior can sing along.

Moderate Dementia

  • Playing background music may help soothe someone who is confused or agitated. It may also help you, the family caregiver!

Severe Dementia

  • Sing songs that are well known like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “When the Saints Go Marching In”. These lyrics are repetitive and the senior might be able to sing along.
  • Nighttime mood music might help with problematic behavior while the senior should be resting.





Published on October 31, 2016.