The Power of Music


The Need:

Up to 5.7 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia and a neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive cognitive impairment and neuropsychiatric symptoms that can cause patients to lose their daily living abilities. This number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million in 2050 as the population ages. Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and is the fifth leading cause among persons age 65 and older. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and there is significant lack of effective disease modifying drugs available to treat its symptoms.


Why Music?

Since there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's many programs targeting those with the disease focus on promoting cognitive abilities, connecting and socializing with others, and incorporating hobbies and activities from their younger years as ways to reduce anxiety and stimulate brain functioning.  The “Arts in Aging” report from the National Endowment for the Arts states that music engages a variety of brain areas involved in emotion, motivation, cognition, and motor functions; therefore, musical interventions have been used by several organizations to increase socialization and cognitive, emotional, and neuromotor functioning of older adults with dementia.


Research has shown that adolescence and early adulthood is when a person develops their sense of self, and memories during this time are integral to our personal history. Music not only becomes memories for us but also connects memories to feelings that we experienced during that time. Read this excerpt from Mark Joseph Stern’s article on “Neural Nostalgia: Why do we love the music we heard as teenagers?” to learn more:


“Research shows that between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good.  Furthermore, our memories from these years serve to be the most vibrant and enduring of an individual’s life, because this period is characterized by ‘the emergence of a stable and enduring self.’ The period between 12 and 22, in other words, is the time when you become you. It makes sense, then, that the memories that contribute to this process become uncommonly important throughout the rest of your life. They didn’t just contribute to the development of your self-image; they became part of your self-image—an integral part of your sense of self. 


Music plays two roles in this process.  First, some songs become memories in and of themselves, so forcefully do they worm their way into memory.  Second, these songs form the soundtrack to what we feel, at the time, like the most vital and momentous years of our lives.”


This music, especially the music that is so hardwired into our brains since youth, has the ability to stimulate the brain, as its neurons begin to fire in perfect synchrony with the music it hears.  Norman Doige explains in his article on "Neuroplasticity", “Since neurons fire in unison to music, music is a way to change the rhythms of the brain.  Because so many brain disorders are caused when the brain loses its rhythm and fires in an offbeat or ‘dysrhythmic’ way, music therapy is especially promising for these conditions.  The rhythms of music medicine can provide a noninvasive way to get the brain back ‘on beat.’”


The defining music for today’s seniors falls within the range of what we now classify as the Golden Age of The Great American Songbook—the Foundation’s primary focus area. With the Foundation’s musical resources, Perfect Harmony encompasses music from classic Broadway, Hollywood musicals, and Jazz– music that today’s seniors would call “our Songbook”.


Consulting with the Experts

Many studies have demonstrated that music therapy is beneficial for improving cognition and reducing neuropsychiatric syndromes of Alzheimer’s disease. As an effectual and cost-effective tool to stem the tide of memory loss, music therapy has become an ideal option for intervention, especially with its absence of side effects and the convenience to operate for patients and their caregivers. 


Currently, the Perfect Harmony program is consulting with a music therapist – board certified (MT-BC). Board-certified music therapists are trained to use music as therapy by addressing physical, social, emotional, communication, and cognitive needs. Determining deficits in one or more of these domain areas enables a music therapist to develop measurable goals and objectives for an individual, which are targeted using clinical music therapy interventions.


Perfect Harmony does not provide music as therapy; however, their consultation with a board-certified music therapist enables their sessions to provide the most effective non-clinical use of music. Individuals who participate in Perfect Harmony can benefit from peer socialization, emotional support, cognitive stimulation and positive interactions through music.  Participants have time to connect, move, and play with the music during the sessions. Music appreciation and social opportunities help enhance the relationship between persons with a dementia diagnosis and care partners, as well as providing an opportunity to develop new relationships with fellow participants and caregivers. Engaging with music through singing and conversation helps nurture self-esteem and elevates overall mood.


The Benefits:


When someone connects to a piece of music, the benefits and power of music are instantly apparent in the smile on the participant’s face, the tapping of their toes, the tears in their eyes from the emotion the music causes in them, or the way they sing each lyric perfectly from memory.  Many caregivers who attend Perfect Harmony, like Molly Haas (below), are compelled to share feedback on these effects of the program on their loved one. Mrs. Haas’s spouse was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease several years ago. She recently wrote a note to the Foundation, which is excerpted below:


“I have been meaning to write to you at least since last New Year’s Day to thank you and your dedicated staff and volunteers for the experiences that my spouse Michael and I have at Perfect Harmony. Michael has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease for several years. Since we heard about Perfect Harmony through the Alzheimer’s Association, it has become an important event for us every month. Michael is a retired Episcopal priest. Music has been important to him for his entire life. Church music, of course, but also popular music. He can no longer read fluently, but he can always read the song sheets at Perfect Harmony.


The songs bring back a lifetime of memories from listening to the radio in the car with his parents in the 1940s to going to dances in the 1950s to singing with community choral groups as an adult. I love to see him light up as he sings familiar songs with the friendly group at the Palladium. He enjoys the movement exercises and the jokes as well as the music. I see him losing his communication abilities a little all the time, but the music still reaches him, and he can still participate. This is priceless.”