A weekly insight into music's affect on the mind through a review of Musicology and Music Therapy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Memories and Music

Have you ever had a relative, a grandfather, uncle, husband, mother with Alzheimer's or dementia?
For so many people, this is a real-life occurrence. Many people suffer from these diseases and are slowly losing their memories. There are some who argue that people with Alzheimer's or dementia have "lost themselves" or the person that they were is "no longer there". However, this blog post might cause you to disagree with that statement or view these diseases differently.

Research done in the Music Therapy field has uncovered some amazing developments. Though many patients with Alzheimer's and dementia experience profound amnesia and sometimes loss of speech, they never truly lose the essence of their character. Preferences, personal interests, and personality still remain, according to one researcher (Oliver Sacks), an "indestructible form of memory".

The personality and preferences of a patient with Alzheimer's or dementia can still be seen in their response to music. How is this done? Music therapists select music that addresses the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts, and memories of a patient. The music selections that they choose from are ones that are already familiar to the person with memory loss.  By using the music that stimulates the emotions, cognition, and memories in a person, the therapists are helping the patient's personality and awareness of self to resurface. With their personality and self awareness, comes a patient's freedom, stability, focus, and organization. They are able to remember things about the music or memories connected to the music.

There are many examples of people, who suffer from Alzheimer's and dementia, having benefited from music therapy or who have shown the ability to remember music when every other memory has left them. One such example was Nietzsche. After a case of neurosyphilis, Nietzsche became mute, demented, and partially paralyzed. Despite these great limitations, he still continued to play and improvise musically on his piano.  Another example of a patient with Alzheimer's but still maintaining his musical memory is Mr. Woody Geist. Previously diagnosed with the memory loss a decade earlier, Mr. Geist's family was amazed by his ability to remember the vocal baritone part to almost every song he ever performed within an a Capella group he'd been a part of.  One woman who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's seven year prior was said (by her husband) to play the piano for several hours every day and was currently working toward memorizing one of Schumann's piano concertos.

So, why does music of all things happen to be one of the few things that someone with Alzheimer's or dementia can remember when they can't remember their own family? According to Connie Tomaino, researcher at the Center for Music and Neurological  Function, the reason these patients can remember music is because they are not just recognizing the music. Rather they are remembering the pattern and temporal structure of the song which is then associated with another memory of a person, place, or event. How does that work? According to cognitive neuroscientist, Petr Jarante, the  part of the brain that stores self-referential activity, such as: personality, emotions, feelings, thoughts, and inferences, is stored in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) of the brain. The MPFC is the last area of the brain to atrophy in patients with Alzheimer's or dementia. Musical memory is stored in the Prefrontal cortex; therefore, it comes as no surprise that these two would be connected.

With that in mind, let's consider why music is able to bring back memories and self-awareness in patients with dementia or Alzheimer's. Music therapists have discovered that music with which the patient is familiar brings forth a response and an increase of awareness. As a result, the therapists select music that they know their patients will recognize. This in essence provides the soundtrack to a mental movie in the patient's mind. While listening to music, a patient with Alzheimer's or dementia might see a memory or a person's face in their mind's eye.

Therefore, the benefits of music therapy for patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are plain to see. Since, musical memory is the longest lasting of memories and is connected to other types of memories it should be no surprise that therapists are using music to help their patients hang on to any remaining memories and trying to restore lost memories, if only for as long as the song lasts. Furthermore, music therapists have proven that music helps patients with Alzheimer's and dementia to come out of themselves. As their disease often takes communication and person-to-person interactions away from them, music therapists have discovered that by playing music for a group of patients has resulted in "togetherness". These patients will often begin singing together or evening dancing together on occasion for as long as the music is playing. Once the music stops, these patients return to their previous state, falling back into their own minds. For these people who suffer from diseases that draw them inwards, they are able through music to relive memories and to spend time with other people outside of their own minds. 

While those with Alzheimer's and dementia do lose their memories and communication abilities, through the help of Music, they have not lost their entire identity. 


Music's the medicine of the mind.  ~John A. Logan
Music is the universal language of mankind.  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

All good music resembles somethinng. Good music stirs by its mysterious resemblance to the objects and feelings which motivated it. ~ Jean Cocteau


Additional video:
This video is from a documentary called "Alive Inside". This is the uncut, unedited video filmed about Henry, a patient in a nursing home who has Alzheimer's


  1. Wow, amazing video and information. I like your format, clean and classic.

  2. The music background is so creative! I like the additional pages you have added on introduction to music, resources, and websites.