How Hearing Familiar Music Positively Impacts Alzheimer Patients

Exciting new findings in the world of music therapy for those with Alzheimers.

New research has revealed that playing familiar music for people with Alzheimer’s can create a long lasting and positive emotional response. Music and the arts have long been theorized and known to provide emotional and behavioral benefits. This latest study was performed at the University of Kentucky School of Music under the leadership of Alaine E. Reschke-Hernandez, an assistant professor of music therapy. She and her team of researchers set out to find out if Alzheimer patients could still be emotionally provoked by music that they used to know , love or hate, despite losing their conscious memory of music. 

The study tested people with and without Alzheimer’s disease to determine if positive or negative feelings could be evoked by music, even without memory. 

The Study

Reschke-Hernandez’s study involved 20 people with Alzheimer’s, and 19 without. The participants were instructed to listen to two, four and a half minute combinations of music that they got to choose, and document their feelings while and after listening. In addition to reporting their emotions, they were tested on their recollection and recognition of the music they chose after the study. 

The participants with Alzheimer’s were observed to have had a harder time identifying music that they knew they liked and could recall having emotional responses to, which was to be expected. However, both the group of participants with Alzheimer’s and the group without reported feeling emotional effects from the music, (either happy or sad)for up to twenty minutes after listening. These results are interesting because they show that memory and recollection are not necessarily imperative when it comes to using music as therapy. Emotions can be elicited even without the knowledge that the music listened to used to be an old favorite. These findings are exciting because they provide proof that music therapy can be very helpful in working with Alzheimer patients. 

Music therapist Meghan Ross, MA, MT-BC, plays guitar for a resident at a retirement home. Photo courtesy of Oaknoll Retirement Residence, Iowa City, Iowa.

Understanding the Findings and its Applications

This study found that listening to even a few minutes of music can have a huge impact on our emotions and brains. The findings are not super consequential by themselves  -- they could be assumed by a society and culture that is familiar with listening to music. Thus,  memory and recall are not imperative to experiencing emotions when listening to music. 

The fact that this study relied on self-selected music was also super interesting and insightful. People went in with certain songs, assuming that  the music would make them feel sad or happy, but   there were numerous instances where  the songs had the opposite result. These results also suggested that both timing and situation can impact the reactions of people listening to music.

Music therapy has an impact on our brains, and that impact is different in people with Alzheimer’s disease, than in people without it. With this understanding, and the results of the study, it becomes clear that music therapy for people with Alzheimer’s needs to be differently tailored and carried out than music therapy for people without memory loss. The findings of this study could go on to inspire studies that look at the most unpleasant symptoms experienced by Alzheimer’s patients, like agitation, and how those symptoms can be addressed and mitigated with music therapy. 

Music therapists can use the results of this study in creating personally tailored care plans for patients with memory loss. 

What Music Therapists Should Take Away 

Reschke-Hernandez has some tips for music therapists based on the results of her study. She says that music therapists should be prepared to encounter the unexpected, especially when working with people with Alzheimer’s disease or other diseases that cause memory loss. What she means by this is, do not go in with assumptions. Just because your patient is a seventy five year old man with memory loss, it does not mean he will not experience positive emotions from a Beyonce song. Along with this, come in prepared with a large repertoire of songs and genres because you really never know what could elicit a positive emotional response. One of Reschke-Hernandez’s patients loved Beyonce because she was able to recall hearing one of her songs while with her grandchildren.The memory and positivity of being with her grandchildren associated Beyonce with that happiness in her brain. 

Reschke-Hernandez also wants to emphasize that music can potentially help  those with Alzheimer’s who are experiencing agitation or resistance to perform necessary tasks. The example she uses is a patient who is resistant to taking a shower. Singing a song with that patient while they shower can help make the process less emotionally taxing and time consuming for both the patient and the caregiver. 

The arts and music have been changing the way patients with Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are being treated. Music and the arts are uniquely able to access parts of our brains that talk therapy is not necessarily capable of hitting, providing unique and often improved results when done correctly This type of therapy is known as creative care, and, as seen in this study, it can be life changing. The arts and music should not be underestimated as a form of therapy for the positive impact they can provide to the lives of those struggling with memory loss, and to the lives of those who are not. 

If you or anyone you know are interested in learning more about music therapy or finding a music therapist, click the About Us section at the top of our screen. 

Edited by Cara Jernigan  on February 13, 2021. 

Macie Gelb
Macie Gelb is a writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.
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