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Posted: April 26, 2008

Unlocking Tangled Memories

Reaching People with Alzheimer's Through Music

A soothing sound, song lyrics or musical chords that rekindle a feeling or memory -- these are wonderful musical sparks that can warm the heart in any of us. But for millions of elderly struggling to hold on in the darkening face of Alzheimer’s or other dementias, these lyrical sounds can help connect yesterday and today, if even briefly.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, in his current best-selling book Musicophilia, writes about the amazing therapeutic effects of music on people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. “Music is no luxury to them but a necessity, and can have power beyond anything to restore them to themselves and to others at least for a while,” writes Sacks, a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University.

In this eye-opening book, Sacks goes on to describe how familiar music is actually the key to eliciting emotions and unlocking words that have been silent.

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Researchers have discovered that the early teen years, especially around the age of 14, are when musical preferences and memories are formed. Daniel Levitin, in his book This is Your Brain on Music, says, “We tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our [brain] and neurotransmitters act in concert to tag as important the memories of these emotionally charged years of self-discovery.”

That’s why people with Alzheimer's disease can often sing the songs they heard during their teen years, even when they can no longer remember the names of their children. This behavior is also well documented in people with advanced dementia.

Throughout my 12-year career as a therapeutic musician in nursing homes, I have witnessed the beneficial power of music for those with Alzheimer's disease. People in my classes who are virtually speechless and confused begin to sing, hum and sometimes dance once they are stimulated by music. The benefits of music and singing, including mood improvement and calmer behavior, often persist for hours after the music has stopped. As a caregiving family member, joining your loved one in a musical activity can bring you both a sense of joy and well being.

Here’s an example of this musical power at work, from a recent music class in an Alzheimer’s community, when I had a thrilling interaction with Lou, a resident with moderate Alzheimer’s, including aphasia (loss of speech).

I was playing a Judy Garland album, intending to reminisce with the residents before I played their favorite “oldies” on the piano for our sing-along. I randomly went into the audience and chose Lou to dance with me while Judy Garland was singing “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow.” He joined me willingly, and before long held me in an appropriate dance position, stared into my eyes and clearly said the last few words of the song, “Why, Oh Why, Can't I?”

I was thrilled, but somewhat baffled when I saw staff running to get their cameras, because I knew nothing about him. The staff later told me that this was the first time they had seen Lou speak and show any semblance of his former self. Apparently, he had been a great dancer and music lover in his pre-Alzheimer’s life.

My own formula for success, which can be replicated by caregivers at home, is a two-part music session. In the first part I play CDs of favorite recording artists such as Judy Garland and Nat King Cole. The second part consists of an old fashioned sing-along in which I accompany residents on the piano. Everyone is given large-print lyrics of each song so they can fully participate – and they do!

If you would like to add music to your loved one’s day, here are some activities to consider:

1. Visit your local music store to find CDs from the 1930s through the 1950s. Songs should be familiar to your loved one, such as songs from their teen years. Favorite popular artists, Broadway shows such as “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma,” and works of composers like George Gershwin are but a few possibilities.

2. There are a number of ready-made sing-along DVD and video resources available at Amazon and found in many of the free senior product catalogs such as S&S Worldwide (1-800-243-9232) and Sea Bay Games (1-800-568-0188).

3. Your public library is another wonderful resource for borrowing musical CDs or DVDs of an opera or Broadway show.

4. If you play an instrument and want to have a sing-along, play it at a slower pace and in a lower key. You can obtain lyrics from the Internet and print them out in an enlarged typeface.

5. Create a soothing atmosphere by tuning your radio to a classical music station. My students particularly enjoy works by composers such as Mozart and Chopin.

6. Add singing and humming to your daily activities, and encourage your loved one to join in and sing. Your participation in musical activities is bound to lift your spirits too.

I have always known that music can open hearts. Through my teaching experience, reinforced by recent research, I have seen how it can also open minds. If you’re willing to give it a try, you might share these same results with your own loved ones.


Barbara Jacobs, M.S. is a therapeutic musician who has produced a series of musical sing-along DVDs for Alzheimer’s patients and seniors. She lives in northern California and can be reached at Her website is

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