In the documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory,” Henry, an elderly man with Alzheimer’s disease, sits despondent, barely responding to the people around him. But when his caregiver plays some of Henry’s favorite music, Henry comes to life. His eyes open fully. He begins to sing and sway. Even after the music is no longer playing, Henry talks, answers questions, and beautifully sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Listening to just a few minutes of music transformed Henry, seemingly undoing the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. He is not alone in this response. Listening to music taps into many different areas of the brain. It affects emotions, memory, social cognition, and even movement. That means it provides a way to stimulate and connect with a person who was previously cut off by their disease. Even if a person can’t speak, they can respond to music.
Part of the benefit comes from simple anatomy: The damage of Alzheimer’s disease begins in the back of the brain, where the limbic system, the seat of memory, resides. But music is processed in the front of the brain, which remains largely untouched until very late in the disease. That means that people can retain the ability to dance and sing long after their ability to talk has diminished, explains Borna Bonakdarpour, MD, director of the Music and Medicine Program at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Dr. Bonakdarpour recently published the results of a study that showed that music helps patients with dementia connect with loved ones. In the study, an ensemble of chamber musicians and a singer performed songs that appealed to the patients from their younger days. Patients and caregivers received simple instruments such as tambourines and shakers to accompany the music, and music therapists encouraged patients to beat on drums, sing, and dance.
Before the intervention, some of the participants showed only minimal or no communication, but while the music was playing, they started to sing, play, and dance.
In a group conversation after the performance, patients were more socially engaged as evidenced by more eye contact, less distraction, less agitation, and an elevated mood. In comparison, people in the control group, who did not receive the intervention and were exposed to usual daily care and programs, did not show such changes.
“Patients were able to connect with partners through music, a connection that was not available to them verbally,” said Dr. Bonakdarpour.
The benefits extended to loved ones, too. “The family and friends of people with dementia also are affected by the disease. It’s painful for them when they can’t connect with a loved one. When language is no longer possible, music gives them a bridge to each other.”
Music has calming effects. “People with cognitive disorders can get lost in time and space,” Dr. Bonakdarpour says, “but listening to the music they enjoyed as teenagers and in their 20s makes them feel grounded and safe—and that reduces anxiety and agitation.”
Music also has a physiological effect. When people listen to slow music, for example, the brain synchronizes and slows down. The heart slows down. Breathing slows down, and the body goes into a resting state where it can recuperate.
The effects seem to linger even after a person is no longer listening to music or singing. Dr. Bonakdarpour works with the Good Memories Choir in Chicago, a choir for people with memory loss and their caregivers. Many of the participants report that their anxiety remains low for up to a day or two after singing in the choir.
During the early days of the COVID pandemic, when hospitalized people couldn’t have visitors, Dr. Bonakdarpour’s team invited a music practitioner to perform for patients. Most of those patients reported that the music helped ease the sense of isolation and made them feel better. When the researchers looked at EEGs of people who were in the neurology ward, they could objectively see the effect of music on the brain. The effects were limited to people who reported enjoying music.
Music can even reduce the need for medication, Dr. Bonakdarpour notes. Research has shown that people who listen to calming music before surgery or when they are at the dentist need less pain medication. It can even help people who are afraid of MRIs.
“When I see individuals with cognitive disorders in my clinic, we talk about medications, but there are so many other things when it comes to the brain,” he says. “If you injure your arm, you don’t just take a pill. You need to do rehabilitation to get your function back. It’s the same with the brain. People need memory therapy.”
For many people, music fits the bill. For those who don’t enjoy music, visiting museums, or watching theater, are all beneficial.
People respond best to music they enjoyed in their teens and twenties. Here’s a look at some of the most popular songs by decade from the 1930s through the 1970s.