By Barbara Jacobs, M.S.
Dr. Oliver Sacks, Professor of Clinical Neurology
and Psychiatry at Columbia University, in his current
bestselling book, Musicophilia, writes about
the amazing therapeutic effects of music on people
with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. He
states, “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.” In
this eye-opening book, he devotes a chapter to this
subject entitled, “Music and Identity: Dementia and
Music Therapy.” For this population, Dr. Sacks
describes how familiar music is the key to eliciting
emotions and unlocking words that have been silent.
Researchers have discovered that the teen years
around the age of 14 are when musical
preferences and memories are formed.Daniel
Levitin in his book This is Your Brain on
Music states, “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.”Therefore, 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, such as mood
improvement and calmer behavior, often persist for
hours after the music has stopped. Joining your
loved one in a musical activity can bring you both a
sense of joy and well-being.
During a recent music class in an Alzheimer’s
…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 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 disease life.
My 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 the 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:
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
Favorite popular artists, Broadway
shows such as “South Pacific” and
“Oklahoma,” and works of composers like
George Gershwin are but a few possibilities.
There are many ready-made sing-along
video and DVD resources available by
searching on the Internet.
- Your public library is another wonderful resource
where you can borrow musical CDs or DVDs of an opera
or Broadway show.
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.