Music Therapy and Alzheimer’s Patients

Music is a form of art that has thrived throughout all of history and has continued to persist as a mechanism for expression and enjoyment today.

However, music is not only pleasing to the ear, but also has many positive effects on its listeners. Music therapy, or the prescribed use of music to achieve certain therapeutic goals, is a less well-known benefit of music. It is particularly advantageous in helping people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Music therapy by no means will ever be able to cure Alzheimer’s patients, but it can help patients recall memories and significantly improve their communication skills and their overall quality of life. Experiments have revealed that the sensory stimulation of music on the brain can slow the decline of cognitive and psychological processes. Meaning that the thought and decision making processes controlled by certain areas of the brain that are targeted by Alzheimer’s will deteriorate at a slower pace if music therapy is regularly practiced.

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This is due to the many parts of the brain such as the auditory cortex, cingulate cortex, and broca’s area which are responsible for the comprehension of music in addition to other life functions such as memory storage, decision making, emotional responses, and speech that are stimulated while listening to music. Music is also considered to be a highly social activity, due to the fact that one is normally listening or making music in a social environment; in addition to being an emotional experience, as the purpose of music is to arouse emotions. So when Alzheimer’s patients take part in this activity, the social and emotional stimulation of listening to music amongst others contribute to the improvement of their ability to communicate with those around them. Certain breakthroughs in communication can range from a patient simply mouthing the lyrics to a song, to dancing or freely conversing with a loved one instead of staring off into space, trapped in a dark, depressing world. Therefore, music therapy can be considered an effective method in freeing Alzheimer’s sufferers from their social isolation and slowing the decline of brain function. In addition to improving communication skills, music can also play a large role in the recollection of memories.

This is because emotions and memories are linked together, therefore, listening to music can awaken certain emotions in its listeners which enable those suffering with Alzheimer’s to connect those emotions back to past memories. Music is also used with these patients to maintain or even increase their levels of physical, mental, social, and emotional functioning, which can help maintain a person’s quality of life or even improve it. In one specific instance, a woman by the name of Mary was suffering from severe dementia. She was continuously in a state of anxiety and fear resulting from the fact that she was not in touch with reality, but found herself trapped in her childhood, reliving her own sexual abuse by her father. As a result of this, she would frequently repeat phrases such as “I have to run”, and “He’s going to get me” still believing she was in danger.

In order to help this woman, Mathew Jordan, a music therapist, began to play familiar songs on piano in order to calm her down. Playing these songs significantly elevated Mary’s mood, as she would begin to smile and dance as soon as he began playing. On another occasion, Mary was especially fearful, so Jordan began to play the familiar tune “Over the Rainbow” on piano. Then he began improvising, or using chord changes to make up his own melody, and began singing “Mary, you are safe”, and “No one will hurt you anymore” for a couple minutes until her anxiety began to melt away. When he finished playing, Mary looked up and said “I don’t have to run”, revealing that her brain was able to take in the information being given to her by her therapist, interpret it, understand it, and apply it to her situation.

In this example, music therapy was able to brighten a suffering women’s mood, allow her to be brought back into reality, and improve her communication skills and mental processing. Music therapy has the potential to drastically improve the lives of those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The improvements in memory recollection and the decrease in social isolation will not only benefit the patients but their families as well. The use of this treatment can achieve results, no matter how large or small; and with scientific industries rapidly expanding every day, anything is possible.