Music & Memory: The Power of Music

Do you have a favorite song that you hum in your head?

Can you remember the song that was played at your wedding? What was one of your favorite songs growing up in high school? These are the first questions I pose to my clients; many of whom have suffered strokes, brain trauma, and have become confined by dementia. Music is a profoundly powerful tool- to the delight of loved ones the music playlists I create for clients help them remember specific memories from their past. Some advanced staged clients can even remember how to speak after careful and regular music sessions.

Neuroscientists have determined that in many types degenerative cognitive conditions the area of the brain responsible for musical memory is the last to atrophy. Alzheimer Disease, for example, can impair language to the point where simple conversations aren’t possible. “Happy Birthday” and the “ABCs” rhyme are songs we all know. I asked a recent client early on in our session to sing along to “Happy Birthday.” A man who could barely utter a word began singing the verses word for word. These are powerful moments which routinely lead to break-through session. Singing along, he certainly surprised himself, too!

Music & Memory® is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music playlists to elderly people suffering from a host of late life cognitive issues. For Home Care Assistance© of El Paso County, we are the only non-medical home care company in Colorado Springs that is certified in Music & Memory®. The secret power behind the music is using specific music that resonates with that client. More can be learned in the film, “Alive Inside” which features a man named Henry who is in the very late stages of dementia. Henry can longer remember family, he cannot speak or care for himself. Then, a song that he recognizes from his young adulthood is played and he is immediately animated with eyes lit up. He begins singing the song word for word and rocks in his wheelchair. Specific music brought him back from the depths of dementia. Henry’s clip can be viewed on YouTube under Henry Music & Memory.

Home Care Assistance has works with clients who’ve suffered strokes, brain injury, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and PTSD from warfare. For my take, the most rewarding experience came from my most challenged client. This man had suffered four strokes and could no longer hold conversations with his family and friends. He lost the capability to convey even the most routine request. As I began my work, he and his wife sat silent and resigned opposite a large dining room table. After some musical “forensic” work I understood they grew up listening to Motown music. Easily, I searched my database for “My Girl” by The Temptations. The first notes took hold. To all our surprise, he pointed to his wife and sang the song to her- “My girl, my girl, talking bout my girl.” Both their eyes welled with tears as he had returned home in that moment. Later, I learned it was the longest form of conversation they had together in years.

Why does music have this effect on people? Harvard Health reports,

“Listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward…Researchers at the music and neuro-imaging laboratory at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have shown that singing lyrics can be especially helpful to people who are recovering from a stroke or brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates in the undamaged right side of the brain, people can learn to speak their thoughts by singing them first and gradually dropping the melody.”

Medical research is finding a solution in music for people who have experienced cognitive decline. It’s exciting to see how much music can really assist someone.

Home Care Assistance of El Paso County offers personalized music playlists on mp3 players for each of their clients as a gift. Owner Dorothy Silvanic says, “Music has helped so many of our clients and we enjoy how happy it makes them.” Home Care Assistance© has their own music library of CD’s to make these personalized playlists. Donations of CD’s can be sent to Home Care Assistance at 13395 Voyager Parkway Suite 120 Colorado Springs, CO 80921.

 

Jessica Colson is the Cognitive Therapeutics Director for Home Care Assistance of El Paso County. She is a Colorado State Dementia Care Specialist, a Cognitive Therapeutics Interventionist, a Music & Memory certified volunteer and she is a certified yoga instructor.