Music and Dementia


Christmas music is EVERYWHERE right now: in the car, at the grocery store, in the elevator, on hold on the phone. Have you ever noticed just how many places we hear music? Music is everywhere, and whether it’s in the background or turned up as far as it will go, music affects us and is important.

Research shows that one of the last parts of the brain to be affected by dementia is the part that holds rhythm. Even the brain thinks music is important! Here are some cool things that music can do for those with dementia (and you, too!):

Music evokes memories.

A song from your wedding comes on the radio, and you immediately remember that day. A song that was popular when you were in high school transports you back to your first date with your high school sweetheart. Hearing Amazing Grace takes you back to your church home growing up. Songs can transport us to other times and places.

Music alters mood.

Soothing classical music may help your mom calm down when she is a bit agitated. A happy, upbeat song may be good when you are trying to get some tasks accomplished with your loved one (like bathing or filing fingernails). Quiet, soft music may help your dad settle down at the end of the day to get ready for bed.

Music engages.

Your loved one may be able to sing every word to favorite songs long after they are not able to effectively communicate in conversation. Music can lead to dancing, snapping fingers, clapping and smiling.

Here’s how you can make music work for you and your loved one:

  • Let your loved one choose the music. Your loved one has so little choice now. Allow your loved one to choose what he or she would like to listen to.
  • Figure out what kind of music your loved one prefers. What decade? What genre? Seek out songs and artists he or she might like. You can find just about any song, from any time period, on YouTube.
  • Use music to set the mood and help you accomplish tasks. Your loved one’s personal care routine might be a lot more fun (and less dreaded) with music.
  • Avoid over-stimulation. Choose music without commercials, turn off the TV, shut the door, and don’t turn it up too loud.
  • Encourage movement. Dance, snap, clap. Movement is fun while also working range of motion and fine motor skills and providing physical exercise.
  • Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Spotify are all inexpensive or free ways to get specific types of music.
  • Create a playlist for free on YouTube of your loved one’s favorite songs. Fill an iPod with favorite songs. Or use Apple Music or Spotify (monthly subscription fee) to create different playlists on your smartphone, so you can take music with you wherever you go.
  • Have a carpool karaoke session (a la the Late Late Show with James Corden)… and don’t worry about who might be watching from other cars.
  • DIY a sing-a-long: just turn on close captioning for a musical on TV.
  • Join in! Sing. Dance. Embrace the music and the beautiful connection it can bring between you and your loved one. If you’ve ever wished life (or even just a moment in time) could be a musical, make it so.

If you want to learn more about music and dementia, we recommend the Alive Inside documentary.