10 Reasons Why Music Works in Dementia Care

It is the inner life of music which can still make contact with their inner lives, with them; which can awaken the hidden, seemingly extinguished soul; and evoke a wholly personal response of memory, associations, feelings, images, a return of thought and sensibility, an answering identity. –Oliver Sacks

Studies show that music is a powerful stimulus for the brain, both emotionally and cognitively. This may be why it is such an important intervention in dementia care. When cognition is disappearing, when semantics, comprehension, working memory, and processing may be lost, music reaches into the emotional places where neural activity may be intact or at least somewhat active.

No matter what the cause or type of dementia, transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory is disturbed. Retaining new information becomes impossible. Caregivers seek to findstrategies which improve absorption of short-term events into long-term memory.

Successful strategies which do this are making associations, emotional reaction or enhanced mood, repetition, organization and patterning of information, and humor.[ii] Music possesses many of these elements. This may be why it is a useful trigger to remembering.

It is the connections of the auditory nerve to key limbic structures in the brain that account for such emotionally charged responses to familiar music. The limbic area of the mid-brain has been indicated in long-term memory storage and emotional processing. Because memories persist when they have some personal importance for the individual, and the processing of familiar music seems to bypass higher cortical structures, it is possible to reach the “sense of self” that may still be preserved in persons with dementia through the use of meaningful songs[iii].

Familiar music is used as a trigger for memory in dementia care. Triggers spark memories from the past and help people with dementia find a sense of self and is often attached to emotions connected to experiences that have been important and meaningful.

There are a number of reasons why music is a natural choice in helping people with dementia.

  1. Music supports and stimulates memory.
  2. Personalized music may reduce agitated or combative behaviors.
  3. Individualized music helps to restructure identity and preserve the self.
  4. Music is a means of expression and non-verbal communication connecting with emotions and feelings.
  5. Music is an aesthetic experience reintroducing beauty and the spiritual life.
  6. Music may have a carryover effect which impacts connections or appropriate behaviors for an extended period of time.
  7. Music can be implemented by caregivers.
  8. Music-making reaches psychosocial needs of persons with dementia like comfort, attachment, inclusion, occupation.
  9. Music makes connections in every domain.
  10. Music contributes to quality of life by enhancing socialization.

To learn more about Kenny’s Pond Social Wellness Program, please visit https://www.kennyspondresidence.com/social-wellness/


Author: Bev Foster
Bev Foster, BEd, BMus, AMus, ARCT, founded the Room 217 Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation and registered Canadian charity dedicated to producing and delivering resources for music and care. She travels widely to perform and speak. She has years of experience in Music Care.

[i]Sacks, O (2007).Musicophilia. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

[ii]Rio, R (2009). Connecting through music with people with dementia: a guide for caregivers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

[iii]Tomaino, C (2001). Working with images and recollection with elderly persons.Music Therapy in Dementia Care, Chapter 10, Ed. D. Aldridge.London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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