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Music Therapy for Dementia

7 minute readLast updated March 13, 2024
fact checkedon March 13, 2024
Written by Anna Nichols, senior living writer
Reviewed by Kyle Spender, senior living specialistKyle Spender, a learning and development specialist with APFM, has a passion for education and 20 years of experience in senior living.
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Music therapy helps people with dementia by activating memories and regulating emotions — two key functions that dementia affects. You’ll often find music therapists in memory care communities using songs and rhythms to help residents with dementia relax, exercise, or sleep better. Experts suggest playing songs with personal meaning to spark happy memories, choosing soothing music to reduce agitation, and encouraging interaction like singing and dancing to increase socialization.

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What is music therapy?

Music therapy can look as simple as playing your loved one’s favorite songs from when they were a teenager or stomping on the floor to an energetic beat.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, music therapy is “the use of music and/or the elements of music (like sound, rhythm, and harmony), to accomplish goals, like reducing stress, or improving quality of life.”[01]

Why does music therapy help people with dementia?

“[Music] can be free to use, it helps bring back memories, and it changes a person’s mood and behaviors,” says Scott Smith, a music therapy program trainer and director of education and experience at the Atlanta-based Thrive Senior Living.

The actual science behind why music therapy works for people with dementia is complex. One study from 2023 suggests that the neural networks that store music memory — like melodies, beats, and song lyrics — are usually spared until the later stages of dementia.[02]

Other studies document how music activates the brain’s limbic system, which regulates emotion. When we hear a moving piece of music, our limbic system “lights up,” causing us to feel awe, sadness, or inspiration.[03]

Because two of the most common symptoms for dementia patients are loss of memory and emotional imbalance, music can help by directly influencing the parts of the brain that control both.

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Cognitive benefits of music therapy

Music can improve understanding, communication, mood, and behavioral disturbances related to dementia, according to a review of several studies on music therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.[04]

The mental benefits of music therapy include:

“Music can help a resident retrieve memories or important feelings they had from those memories,” says Scott. “For example, a wedding song can make someone with Alzheimer’s feel the way they did on their wedding day.”

Music therapy activities often have a social aspect, says Kyle Spender, a Learning and Development Specialist who studies both music and sociology. Chair dancing, group drumming, and group sing-alongs use music to build social connections, which has a huge benefit to dementia patients’ emotional well-being.

Music is a universal language that touches our souls, enlivens our bodies, and connects us to others.

Kareen King, a creative engagement specialist

Physical benefits of music therapy

Music therapy can offer physical benefits as well. Understanding how different tempos affect the body and the mind gives caregivers another tool in their toolbox to help their residents.

For example, music with a fun beat can encourage a senior to engage in some light exercise. Low-tempo music, meanwhile, has been shown to reduce blood pressure.

Music can also be used to improve sleep.[02]

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How do memory care communities use music therapy?

Music therapy is a popular activity in memory care communities because it’s effective, easy to use, and inexpensive. Activities directors and music therapists have long known the benefits of using music to help residents with dementia.

“Music is a universal language that touches our souls, enlivens our bodies, and connects us to others,” says Kareen King, a creative engagement specialist who provides therapeutic music experiences to seniors with dementia.

While she regularly confronts the challenges of dealing with dementia limits, King knows she’s making a difference. “For some, therapeutic musical programs are the highlight of their week.”

King suggests three music therapy techniques when working with seniors in memory care communities:

  1. Play familiar music. Encourage seniors to shake or tap musical instruments to the beat. Instruments can include plastic hand clappers, rhythm sticks, egg shakers, maracas, jingle bells, spoons, or other objects.
  2. Use a drum to create a firm beat. This provides a strong sound foundation and helps seniors follow the beat or create their own rhythm.
  3. Interact with the music. Encourage caregivers to sing, dance, or make music with the residents.

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How can caregivers use music therapy?

Because music is so accessible, family caregivers can use music therapy to help their loved ones wherever they are. Often, music therapy is as simple as listening to music, so picking the right songs matters a lot.

The type of music that works best for people with dementia is music or songs that have personal meaning. In a review of several studies on music and Alzheimer’s, researchers found that personalized music provided the best outcomes in improving mood, reducing agitation, and recall.[02]

“Typically, our music taste comes from our teenage years,” says Scott Smith, a music therapy program trainer and director of education and experience at the Atlanta-based Thrive Senior Living. “Based on the age of the resident, we can determine what era of music would have the biggest impact for them.”

Music can help a resident retrieve memories or important feelings they had from those memories.

Scott Smith, a music therapy program trainer and director of education and experience

How to build the perfect playlist for your loved one

“I can attest, with some exceptions — music that is familiar and loved by the agitated person somehow naturally and miraculously redirects their emotions and their focus,” says King.

Use these tips to build a personalized playlist for your aging loved one:

  1. Find songs with personal meaning. Listening to old favorites can bring back joy and make potentially troublesome activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing or dressing go more smoothly. Consider wedding songs and favorite bands, or ask relatives if they have any ideas.
  2. Include music from their youth. Look at the top pop songs from your loved one’s young adult years. For example, if they were born in the 1940s, look at the music charts from the late 1950s and 1960s.
  3. Use soothing songs to reduce agitation. “We know a lot of agitation comes from pain or unmet needs, but music can promote rhythmic breathing, relaxation, and help someone who may be anxious calm down,” Scott says. Consider instrumental music with a slow tempo.
  4. Evoke happy memories through sing-along classics. Music can act as a simple and accessible time machine. To help bring back happy memories, look for classic or familiar songs with easy lyrics that your loved one likely learned as a child.

SHARE THE ARTICLE

  1. Cleveland Clinic. (2023). Music Therapy.

  2. Jancke, L. (2008). Music, memory and emotionJournal of Biology.

  3. Leggieri, M., Thaut, M. H., et. al. (March 12, 2019). Music intervention approaches for Alzheimer’s disease: A review of the literatureFrontiers in Neuroscience.

Meet the Author
Anna Nichols, senior living writer

Anna Nichols is a content specialist at A Place for Mom, primarily focusing on nursing homes and caregiver support. Her work has involved researching senior-friendly activities in cities across the U.S., as well as reporting on the challenges of long-distance caregiving. Anna holds a degree in English and education plus a master's degree in theology.

Reviewed by

Kyle Spender, senior living specialist

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