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Stories of music and dementia

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

There is increasing research evidence of the benefits of music for people with dementia. Having spent a few years working in nursing homes and hospitals with this population, I have witnessed first hand some of the small ‘miracles’ that music can bring.

In a weekly music therapy group, Joan, who had always enjoyed playing the piano,  was able to play the xylophone and pick out the melody of songs long after she was able to communicate her words in whole sentences. The music therapy sessions offered her somewhere to find expression and the reward of being heard and acknowledged by others.


Another group member, Jim, was the ‘welcome steward’ of our sessions. He would stand at the door and greet everyone with a smile and some ‘small talk’, except his small talk was no longer making sense and his words were incoherent and unintelligible. Still, he assumed this role and would help get people seated and the group were grateful to Jim for his contribution. At the close of group one day, I invited everyone to sit and listen to a piece of classical orchestral music. It lasted just a few minutes and when it ended the room fell into a settled silence. Into that silence came Jim’s clear and articulate voice, “Well - that was amazing!” Everyone stared back at Jim in amazement! I asked, “Jim, do you mean the style of music, or the way that we enjoyed it together?” “Well, the whole thing! I think we would all say so, wouldn’t we?”. Everyone wholeheartedly agreed!

People ask if the music can bring permanent change? We know that forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s are degenerative diseases and there is no cure. But there can be a delay of its progression, and connection to ourselves and to others in the present moment is a key to maintaining quality of life. 

I have so many stories of music making connections: For Sally it would take her to her childhood where she happily reminisced and was grateful to have been led into this experience through the music; Hilda would not recognize me and each week and I would have to explain again what was the music group and invite her trust anew, until she was again sitting in the circle and picked up the same instrument from the previous week and it was as though her body memory took over, and with a smile of relief on her face she would often say, “I know this place! I’ve been here before!” And, to confirm what many people are sharing these days, there were many of my elderly client friends who were able to sing through whole songs when many of them were no longer able to hold a conversation. 

Music therapy as a specialist profession can help to unlock some of these experiences, but we all know that music is a therapeutic presence in so many ways. 

As music therapists we also work as consultants to support others, particularly carers (whether family or salaried!) to use music in the care of their loved one/client. When they find ways to engage, the benefits of music flows both ways:

Julie, wife of patient John said, “We’ve always both enjoyed music, but I didn’t

realise that the sound of music and songs would bring his memory back. He can remember all the words...

Now I’ll wake and sing ‘Good morning, good morning!’ and he joins in. It lifts the mood. We skip

along together then.

Then it’s ‘Here we go again’ when we’re going for a wash!

It’s been a wonderful discovery, the music.”

A video that went viral on social media a few years ago is a beautiful example of how personalized recorded music can ‘awaken’ people who have retreated into isolation. 

Meet Henry! -

The excerpt is taken from a documentary film “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory”(2014) directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett, which is full of examples of ‘musical magic’ and it tells the story of the start of a program called ‘Music and Memory’, which uses a model of making a playlist of an individual’s favourite music and putting it onto an iPod for their own personalized music.

The Music and Memory program offers certification to organizations and works well as a volunteer program. It is not music therapy, but it is an example of the value of therapeutic music and the many ways that we can use music to offer connection and meaning-making.


CNY Music Therapy LLC contracts with St Joseph’s hospital in Syracuse where I work as music therapist and where I also established and work as consultant to a ‘Music and Memory’ volunteer program. The service supports the many admitted elderly patients who are confused and anxious due to their dementia (as well as patients with other needs). 

One of our first patients on the program provided all the encouragement we needed to continue to develop the service: David was admitted to hospital and had been on the unit for a week with little progress. He had no family and he was unable to communicate through his words to let the staff understand more of his felt needs. His nurse was looking through a picture book with him when he pointed to a picture of a stage and started singing… so we quickly put together an iPod with some show tunes and left it with staff to offer him through the weekend. When the same nurse returned on Monday morning and asked how he was doing, he smiled and exclaimed, “Good morning, nurse! I have had a glorious weekend!” The music, which was bringing him an immense amount of joy, was also activating the speech center of David’s brain, so that while listening to music and for a short while after, he was able to articulate his thoughts and needs. I visited David later that day and he smiled at me, but was not able to speak or seem to understand my words until I sang to him - and he then sang back! We listened together to his iPod and sang through some songs together and then David was able to answer questions about his love of music and how he began learning an instrument in middle school, etc, etc. 

And one final example in closing, which seems a fitting ‘check-out’ for this section: 

A 92-year-old patient left a note with the returned iPod at his discharge from hospital:

“Modern meds are really great

To say the very least.

But music is the very best

To soothe the savage beast.

Thank you!”

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