The Power of Music in Dementia

PIcture of post author Sharnita M

There’s always been something about hearing a familiar tune play in the background of all the bustling and busy elements of life. Something about these melodic sounds brought different images to my mind, either happy or sad, nostalgic or filled with anticipation of a possible future. Music has always been powerful to me, and this is why I became interested when I heard that researchers and musicians were teaming up to look at the ways in which music impacts those living with dementia.

Two weeks ago, Toya A., the Community Liaison for the “ARTZ in the Neighborhood” Northwest Philly Project, shared a video of her mother singing along with the Temptations’ recording of “Silent Night,” and it reminded me that for some, music is what brings them joy.

The grandmother of one of my closest friends was diagnosed with dementia while we were still children, and there are many memories of her that I treasure. Growing up, I often spent the days leading up to Christmas at my friend’s and her family’s house. They particularly enjoyed the song “Dominick the Donkey,” and they would all sing in unison whenever it played on a radio station called B101 at the time. They would start with, “Chingedy ching, it’s Dominick the donkey! Chingedy ching, the Italian Christmas donkey!” then a chorus of “la la la’s” would follow. As the “la la la’s” began, I could hear my friend’s grandmother chiming along, as if that tune let her know that she was with family.

I treasure this memory of her small notes and her face lighting up when everyone around her joined in on the song. There was a part of her that enjoyed the Christmas music as much as everyone around her.

Recently, the impact of music on the brains of people with dementia has been studied closely to see if music activates different parts of the brain. Several people living with dementia have been found to recognize melodies from their childhood, and there are stories of people who had been silent or still before who suddenly started to hum or move in rhythm to the music once a song played.

Music Therapist Grace Meadows spoke to Classic FM about the impact of music on people with dementia. She said that “music can be a lifeline for people living with dementia,” leading to shared moments with family, friends and caregivers. She believes that music for people living with dementia is a necessity.

“We’re social creatures and music helps create communities, offering inclusive, meaningful social experiences,” she began. “It provides opportunities for people to reconnect with a sense of autonomy and agency, at times when they may feel as though they have little or no control because of the impact of dementia.”

A website called “Music for Dementia 2020” has launched in the UK in hopes to make music available to everyone living with dementia. On their website, contributors write that “music supports people living with dementia to communicate beyond words, helping them to connect with others. It supports emotional health and wellbeing, particularly at a time when emotions can be overwhelming or difficult to process or manage. It has a valuable role to play in enhancing quality of life and supporting carers in their vital role.”

Currently, music is being used in clinical settings to help relieve stress and to reduce anxiety and agitation among those who are diagnosed with dementia. However, as more research is done on music and dementia, there might be more programs and services to create social and impactful moments for those living with dementia. ARTZ Philadelphia is one of the program and service providers that is exploring these possibilities.