music as a treatment for dementia | what is dementia

Science tells us that the auditory system of the brain is the first to function – at around 16 weeks gestation – and so human beings are receptive to music long before they are receptive to anything else. We know that babies in the womb respond to music, and sensory-wise it really is a case of ‘first in, last out’; meaning that even someone who is living with advanced Alzheimers, and who’s verbal abilities might be lost, will still respond to music and singing. In fact, studies show that music can reach parts of the damaged brain that other forms of communication can’t, and can soothe, stimulate, and even bring to mind long-forgotten memories. 

Playing music to dementia patients will often inspire a strong emotional reaction, particularly if it is a song from their youth – from their wedding perhaps, or a song they used to sing with their children.

Some Of The Benefits Of Using Music As Therapy For Dementia Patients

  • It encourages social interaction – both with other dementia patients, or with family members and friends. Singing in a group is often encouraged in care home environments as a way to relieve stress and lift the mood, and the benefits of this can be even more significant in the cognitively impaired.
  • Soothing music can lessen distress if a dementia patient is becoming confused or upset during situations such as a carer helping them to get dressed or in being encouraged to take medication. Music can work as a great distraction technique, allowing the patient to focus their mind on something other than the task at hand.
  • It can facilitate physical movement. Even the smallest of movements – clapping or swaying while sitting in a chair can have great benefits. More mobile patients might like to dance – which carries its own benefits of social interaction and physical contact. Either way, any form of exercise is great for the mind as well as the body.

Music And Memories

Research has shown that dementia patients respond most positively to music they listened to as youngsters and through their teenage years, and so songs from that era, or perhaps music from their cultural background tend to evoke the most positive responses. Music is known to trigger autobiographical memories, which in turn reinforce a sense of identity, and, crucially, it’s been proven that memories of songs activate the very parts of the brain that seem to be particularly resistant to the damaging effects of Alzheimer’s.


Sound is essential in communication – without pitch, tone, and speed, it would be unexpressive – and it is these qualities that allow music to connect with those who are living with dementia. Rhythm is a great way to help focus an older person who is cognitively impaired, and can stimulate the parts of the brain that control coordination and timing. Patients have even been known to form memory links by pairing daily tasks with music – even helping carers and family members to connect with those who may be experiencing the more advanced stages of the illness.


For those dementia patients who are able to, singing along to much-loved songs can be incredibly therapeutic as a way of relieving stress and anxiety, as well as helping maintain speech and language, and enhancing quality of life. Many care homes and dementia charities promote singing and music as therapy – with some forming dementia choirs, such as the Alzheimer’s Society’s ‘Singing for the Brain.’ These groups involve participation from dementia patients themselves, as well as their carers and a musician, and normally begin with warm-up exercises for both voice and body, before singing along to familiar songs. Much the same as just listening to music, the benefits of singing are numerous and include the release of endorphins, which improves mood, as well as exercising the body and mind. Popular choices of songs to sing along to are often show tunes or songs from movies that would have been popular in the patients’ youth.

Music really does transverse age, race, and gender, and when used as a therapy to unlock parts of the mind that otherwise cannot be reached, it becomes even more powerful. For a person living with dementia, music and singing can be a way for them to express themselves and to remember who they are, at a time when illness prevents it otherwise.