Music Therapy for Dementia Patients

Studies have shown that music can increase brain connectivity in patients with dementia.  But what does this mean? According to the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, research demonstrates how “…personalized music playlists can activate regions of the brain typically not touched by early Alzheimer’s disease and may offer a new way to approach anxiety, depression, and agitation in patients.”

Jeff Anderson, MD, one of the authors of the study and an associate professor of radiology at the University of Utah Health, says that the research was designed to look at the mechanism of action in the brain, not necessarily to test whether music has an effect on therapy. He further explained the way music affects dementia patients really hasn’t had the benefit of rigorous science to back up how might work or why it might work under certain circumstances.

Music may do more than just stimulate the attention network… Music may be like a trigger stimulating the brain.

When patients with Alzheimer’s-related dementia listened to clips from a personalized playlist – music that had a particular meaning to each individual – they found during MRI scans that functional connectivity continued even after the music was played. Dr. Anderson said, “We don’t know how long this effect lasts, but music may do more than just stimulate the attention network. It may be able to get different regions of the brain to talk to one another. Music may be like a trigger stimulating the brain.” 

More research on the way

Research studies like this one are just beginning. The National Institutes of Health has partnered with the Kennedy Center to call for additional research into the effects of music on aging and dementia. Dr. Anderson said, “I expect that many laboratories will flesh out how this works, what the effects are, what conditions it helps, and the best uses to make people’s lives better as they go through the aging process.” He added, “Playing music isn’t going to cure Alzheimer’s disease, but it helps. If you have patients who are severely affected and they need less anxiety medication and less medication for depression or their attention improves, those gains can be very meaningful.”

Music therapy

Caregivers have used music to make a difference in the lives of those they care for with dementia, depression, autism, brain injuries, and more. The field of Music Therapy was debuted in 1950 but has gained increasing awareness in hospitals, adult day care, and senior centers, and nursing homes. There are more than 6,000 music therapists who are nationally certified by the American Music Therapy Association. Healthcare workers are using music and music therapists to help in treating a growing list of conditions, including dementia. Anecdotal evidence shows that music can tap into memories and reduce anxiety, pain, heart rate, and blood pressure.

If you are a caregiver for a loved one with dementia, music therapists offer these suggestions:

Create a playlist of familiar and favorite songs.

What type of music was most-often listened to? Show tunes? Opera? Rock n’ Roll?

U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was unable to speak after she was shot in 2011 and suffered brain damage. Her mother, father, and husband knew her favorite songs and surrounded her with the music she loved – “American Pie,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Over the Rainbow.” Gabby was able to sing several words in a phrase, but couldn’t put a three-word sentence together on her own. Gabby’s music therapist, Maegan Morrow, told Gabby to sing her needs: “I want to go to bed.” “I’m tired.”

One caregiver reported that her 90-year old mother became sad when it was time for her to leave. “When I put on classical or opera music, she wouldn’t miss me. Instead, she’d wave ‘goodbye,’ close her eyes and be transported by the music.”

Choose a music source.

What works best for you – a CD player, MP3 player, iPod, tablet, or a turntable with vinyl records? You can use your local library to borrow music or take advantage of a website like Pandora ( or Spotify ( to create a personalized playlist.

Download an app

Designed by a music therapist, SingFit and  SingMagic are much like portable karaoke machines that help participants sing along by providing lyric prompts, volume keys, and voice playback. Play songs at varying speeds with Magic Piano and you can sing along.

Match music to activities.

Use music to transition from one activity to another, whether it is moving to another room or to a different task. Play peaceful music upon awakening and pick up the pace with an active, upbeat song when getting dressed for the day. Try singing directions rather than speaking them. To coax a loved one to take a shower, put on Duke Ellington and dance together into the shower room.

Make music together.

Music can benefit everyone.

  • Creating a bonding activity;
  • Reducing the need for medication;
  • Lessening anxiety, depression and loneliness; and
  • Increasing their attention.

Music can provide a way to connect that is meaningful and helpful to both caregiver and patient. Sitting and listening to music together can be bonding. A pilot study by New York University Center for Cognitive Neurology found that members of a New York City chorus made up of those with early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s and their caregiving spouses and children reported some interesting findings.

Participants cited more self-esteem, better moods, less depression, and a greater quality of life after 13 rehearsals and one concert. Participants said the camaraderie of the chorus helped to ward off the loneliness that often accompanies caring for those with dementia. Husbands and wives appreciated being with others who are dealing with the same issues. Plus, singing teaches good breathing techniques, musical memory exercises and movement – all stress relievers and effective mental and physical exercise.

For non-singers.

Consider a rhythm group or drum with others. You don’t need a musical background and it is fun!

Be sure to tune in to your own needs.

Music is a source of pleasure for many. Caregivers need stress relief and a sense of well-being and music can provide a way to “recharge the batteries.” Music can help them relax and escape from everyday problems for much needed moments of respite.

Contact us

SALMON Health and Retirement’s communities offer resources for caregivers and family members, as well as the Tapestry Program for memory care. To learn more, contact us today for more information.