Music & Dementia

Why is music so important for people
living with dementia?

Much has been written about the power of music to enliven and enrich the lives of people living with dementia. Many care centres and homes already employ singing and other music therapies and activities.

There is a very good reason for this. All of us can relate to the positive effects of music: It relaxes, soothes, stimulates and predisposes us to sociability. Scientifically speaking, music stimulates the neuro endochrinal (i.e. hormone-producing) systems and releases and increases natural hormones (dopamine, endorphins) and reduces others (cortisol, the stress hormone). Neuroscientists have also taught us that music has unique properties for the brain. It fires up the neural pathways like no other sensory stimulus and improves cognitive function.

So, music re-activates the brain and enhances mood. These are 2 very good reasons why all of us, irrespective of our health, should participate in music-based activity! But there is a third and much more important reason. The parts of the brain that recognise music and hold musical memories appear to be unaffected by Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases. Moreover, as the short- and medium-term memories diminish and other executive brain functions deteriorate, the emotional lives of the people living with dementia remain alive and well (3).

Events and people may be rapidly forgotten, but the emotional impact of these events and actions of people can have a lasting effect. This is why activities that are absorbing, fulfilling, fun and pleasurable are so important. An activity like playing the MindHarp® can be profoundly satisfying to experience ‘in the moment’ and have lasting positive effects. Equally, the positive outcomes are felt as strongly by the carer or facilitator.

Active participation in music, musical sound and music-making is a key contributor to enriching the lives of those living with dementia and their carers.

We take the science behind what we do very seriously and we are developing more approaches to MindHarp® therapies all the time. We look forward to seeing the MindHarp® being incorporated into formal academic studies. Here are some interesting excerpts from recent published articles which support our work:

How music can re-connect families and carers…

A valuable source of cognitive stimulation but also a conduit through which carers, families and friends can re-learn how to communicate and interact with their loved one. Music can be used to help patients in the later stages of dementia to re-engage with the people around them, after the point where verbal contact has been lost. (1)

Activities such as moving and singing to music encourage physical and mental engagement with loved ones and carers that can be beneficial for the patient’s state and bring about changes in quality-of-life measures for family and friends. (1)


Why music is such a powerful tool in helping us care for people living with neurodegenerative disease…


Music is strongly linked to our memories and how musical memories can often survive in cases where other forms of life memory seem inaccessible, including after brain injury and in dementia. This strong link to music in our memory can provide an invaluable link to a person’s sense of personal history and identity. (1)

Patients with dementia seem more likely and able to recall and verbalise personal memories when evoked by music. The preservation of long-term musical memory may be explained by the research indicating the caudal anterior cingulate and ventral presupplemental motor areas display relatively less atrophy in patients with AD (Alzheimer’s Disease), and these areas are where the neural encoding of long-known, familiar music occurs. (2)

Also, the prefrontal cortex is another area that is less atrophied – or shows a lesser rate of atrophy – and this plays an important part in music-evoked autobiographical memory. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in reward and emotions and it activates during autobiographical memory retrieval. It also activates when listening to music that brings pleasure and during familiarity judgment about music. (2)

When musical information is processed and encoded, more brain areas are recruited in addition to those typically associated with the coding of general memory, such as the hippocampus and temporal lobe region. This results in a more robust and holistic encoding of musical memory that facilitates the retrieval of information  through an “alternative” or “backup” system that bypasses the brain areas affected by neurodegeneration. (2)

Music as a therapy and and mood-enhancer…

Music-based practical memory training would allow an individual to maintain their independence for longer. (1)

Music therapy has been associated with significant reductions in both long-term anxiety and depression levels… (1)

Music not only activates spared brain areas …and induces neuroplasticity after rehab through its extensive engagement of a widespread network in the brain…but music also reduces anxiety and depression in patients with dementia through its impact on reward, arousal and emotion networks. (2)

The relaxing effects of music may be explained by increased dopamine secretion and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system being induced by music. Music induced improvement of mood may further explain the enhanced performance of autobiographical memory in AD. (2)

Attention control: The effects of the Musical Dual-Task Training with dementia (MDTT) have proven that cognitive function (not physical) is enhanced…with improvements in attention , falls efficacy and reduced agitation. (2)

(1) “You Are the Music: How Music Reveals What it Means to be Human” by Victoria Williamson

(2) Musical dual-task training in patients with mild-to-moderate dementia: a randomized controlled trial; Published 30 May 2018 Volume 2018:14 Pages 1381—1393; Authors Chen YL, Pei YC.  Go to article

(3) Feelings Without Memory in Alzheimer Disease; Guzmán-Vélez, Edmarie MA*,†; Feinstein, Justin S. PhD†,‡,§; Tranel, Daniel PhD*,†, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology: September 2014 – Volume 27 – Issue 3 – p 117–129.  Go to article