Understanding The Therapeutic Benefits of Music for People Living with Memory Loss 

Is your care team taking advantage of music?

Music can be an invaluable resource for people with dementia and their care partners. Family members and professionals can use music to help people socialize and relax.  

This article explains three key benefits of music for your care team.

Music for Dementia

3 Benefits for People Living with Dementia and Their Care Teams 

Music engages the mind in a way that’s familiar. Even as other cognitive abilities decline, music remains accessible. 

For those with dementia, reasoning, language, and logic - become challenging. As these skills fade, everyday tasks and simple conversation can become difficult.  

Music is an activity that can help people connect. With dementia, it’s not uncommon for people that are non-verbal to be able to sing along to their favorite songs.  

Music can be enjoyable for all people, even those without a musical background. This article highlights therapeutic benefits of music for people living with dementia. It also provides simple suggestions for friends, family, and professionals to get started using music. 

#1. Therapeutic Benefit: Music takes us back…

Music's Connection to Memories

There is a connection between meaningful music and memories.  

A 2009 study from the University of California demonstrated music's impact on memories. During the study, researchers mapped the brain while people listened to music. They found that specific regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions.  

The brain region linked to memories is activated by familiar music. It just so happens - the same brain region is one of the last areas affected by Alzheimer's and dementia.  

The study’s author was Petr Janata - the associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain. He explains how personalized music can help people with Alzheimer’s connect to the past:  

“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye."  

These memories can help evoke comforting feelings associated with memories. They can also help people gain confidence and feel connected to their identity.


How can music’s connection to memories help care teams? 

The connection between music and autobiographical memories can help care teams socialize.  

People that are living with dementia are at an increased risk of becoming isolated. Avoiding isolation should be a top priority for care teams. As we know, isolation is linked to depression and other negative health outcomes.

Humans have an innate need to connect, but there are barriers for people with dementia:  

  • Some people are naturally private and introverted.
  • People often become more private and introverted as memory and language skills fade. Many are hesitant to engage with others due to a fear of looking or sounding foolish.  

There are also barriers for care partners:  

  • Forgetfulness can make conversation more challenging.
  • It can be hard to slow down and adapt .

Music can act as a bridge to help care partners make connections. Listening to familiar music evokes feelings associated with those memories.  

Through specific genres, artists, and songs, care partners can encourage reminiscing. These moments of connection make the time spent together more enjoyable.

Music for Dementia Use Case: Maryanne

For Maryanne, the song “In the Mood” by Glen Miller may trigger memories of swing dancing with her husband. Family members and caregivers play the song on a regular basis.  

Therapeutic Benefits of Using Music:

  • Without hesitantion, Maryanne will move along to the beat of the song. 
  • Her caregiver will often share a simple story to help her feel connected to happy times.  
  • Sample engagement - “I heard you use to swing dance at weddings with your husband to this song. Your daughter said everyone would gather around and watch you swirl and jive.”
Woman dancing with husband

Other musical connections may be more subtle. They can help care recipient’s reflect on meaningful topics, instead of specific events.  

Music for Dementia Use Case: John

For John, traditional Christians hymns bring back memories of his upbringing. Every Sunday, he went to church with his parents, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Therapeutic Benefits of Using Music:

  • John has a great singing voice. Even though he is shy, he still sings during church services.  
  • Caregivers use these familiar hymns as a bridge to discuss John’s faith. They also use it to encourage comforting activities, such as prayer.  
  • Sample engagement - "Would you like to close our eyes and pray together while the song plays?"
praying hands

Each person’s musical memories are unique. Discovering how music can help with reminiscing usually requires some experimentation. Once you learn how specific songs or genres can help, the entire team can benefit.  

As you use music to socialize, the following tips can help you get the most out of your sessions:  

  • Share simple stories or memories associated with music.
  • Provide opportunities for the care recipient to share their memories associated with music.  
  • Avoid correcting factual inaccuracies or asking specific follow-up questions. Accept their reality and speak about general memories. The details are not important; the feelings associated with the memories are.  
  • Listen to music with visitors. Encourage others to share pastimes associated with favorite music.  
  • Sing and/or dance. Studies show that combining music listening with singing and dancing can enhance benefits. 

#2. Therapeutic Benefit: Music moves people…

Music's Ability to Inspire Movement and Routines  

Humans have a natural physical reaction to music. Think about what happens when you hear your favorite music? You start shaking your shoulder, tapping your feet, or otherwise moving to the beat of the music.  

Music activates the cerebellum - a brain region involved in coordination and movement. These innate reactions to music can help caregivers encourage movement and establish routines.  

For example, an upbeat dance song with quick tempos might result in arm swinging. These simple movements can help people feel more alert and active.  

Making this type of music part of the care routine can encourage physical activity. There are countless benefits to staying active, including improved mood and cognition.  

Music can also help with activities of daily living that involve movement. Caregivers can play music to help with dressing, bathing, and other daily routines.  

How can music’s ability to move people help care teams with routines? 

Over time, musical cues can become part of a care routine or plan. Routines can help people with dementia maintain greater independence. Activities of daily living become habitual and involve less conscious thought.  

Examples of how music can help with routines include:  

  • Upon waking to help the person orient to their surroundings  
  • While getting ready in the morning to encourage movement  
  • During a showering or bathing routine to distract from angst  
  • With meals to increase appetite or improve swallowing

#3. Therapeutic Benefit: Music improves mood

How Music Can Help Lift Mood  

Memory loss and confusion can lead to feelings of anxiety or sadness. As people with dementia abilities decline, managing emotions becomes more difficult.  

Anyone that has ever been in a bad mood knows that dealing with unwelcomed emotions is a challenge. It can be hard to address your feelings and shift your focus.  

People with dementia lose their ability to self-initiate these coping strategies. They rely on the people around them to address and lessen uncomfortable feelings.  

Music can be a key component in helping people through these difficult situations. Music can comfort people during stressful moments. It can also help care partners avoid or reduce stressful situations.  

People with dementia are often prescribed antidepressants and other medications. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin studied an alternative intervention - using music.  

Professional caregivers learned how to use tablets to personalize engagement activities. The vast majority of care recipients benefited from tablet sessions. The two types of entertainment that had the best result were music and YouTube. These activities were “strongly associated with improving or maintaining positive moods.”  

Caregivers rated their care recipients’ moods before and after the engagement sessions. They selected one of seven emotions: joyful, happy, relaxed, indifferent, sad, anxious, or angry.  

Over 600 sessions started with care recipients in a negative mood. After engaging those clients with music, over 90% reported clients feeling joyful, happy, or relaxed.

quote from caregiver research study

How can music’s ability to help improve mood help care teams?  

Social outings, doctor visits, and other unfamiliar situations can be stressful. People with dementia, especially those in the latter stage, can experience sensory overload. Unfamiliar environments can cause worry or frustration.

Listening to a person’s favorite music before or during a stressful situation can help. Music can redirect attention and lift the mood of the room.  

Situations in which music can help reduce stress include:  

  • In the car or while traveling 
  • At the doctor’s office or hospital 
  • During family gatherings or outings  

Caregivers can also to inspire feelings of comfort and relaxation. This can be especially helpful for those experiencing pain or angst.  

Sundowning is a term that refers to a state of confusion and anxiety that occurs in the late afternoon. These distressing symptoms often affect people with dementia.  

Caregivers can reduce sundowning symptoms by creating a calming environment. Setting up a room with dim lighting and soothing music can help people feel comfortable and safe.

Taking the Next Step...

Every person’s relationship with music is unique. Making music part of your routine requires experimentation.  

The team at Generation Connect put together a guide - music for dementia care teams! Learn strategies for exploring preferences, building playlists, and establishing routines.