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Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease: How Can It Help?

Medically reviewed by Ifeanyi Nwaka, M.D.
Written by Suzanne Mooney
Posted on May 7, 2024

Alzheimer’s disease affects memory and thinking, but there’s a surprising helper that doesn’t come in a pill bottle: music. This approach isn’t just about listening to music, it can involve singing, playing instruments, and dancing. These activities can help improve mood and memory, providing a comforting and uplifting experience for those living with the disease.

Music therapy is becoming increasingly popular for helping people cope with the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Because memories are not all stored in the same areas of the brain, people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can access musical memory in one part of the brain while experiencing cognitive decline and memory loss in another. Whether your loved one has mild Alzheimer’s disease or is in the later stages of dementia, music therapy might be able to help.

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is the use of music, rhythm, harmony, and sound to improve well-being and quality of life. Music therapy includes listening to music, playing instruments, singing, dancing, discussing lyrics, playing musical games, songwriting, and other activities. You don’t need musical skills or talent to benefit from this type of therapy.

A trained music therapist can help people with all types of concerns, including cancer, stroke, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, a music therapist must earn a bachelor’s degree or higher and pass a national board certification exam to practice music therapy in the United States.

The Benefits of Music Therapy

There are many potential benefits of music therapy. Results depend on each person’s overall health and well-being, outlook, struggles, and goals.

Research evaluating the effects of music therapy across different groups of people has shown that it may help with:

  • Managing stress
  • Alleviating pain
  • Improving communication
  • Reducing muscle tension
  • Enhancing memory
  • Improving motor function
  • Reducing anxiety or depression
  • Expressing feelings
  • Addressing grief or loss
  • Developing healthy coping skills

Music Therapy and Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly 7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s Disease, and that number is growing. Music therapy is becoming increasingly popular as a way to ease symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

Research from Frontiers in Psychology has shown that music interventions may be able to reduce agitation, improve cognitive function, and improve social interactions for people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Music may also lessen pain, ease depression, and decrease aggressive behavioral symptoms like violent outbursts.

While some studies have found that music therapy can help with cognitive function and agitation, results have been inconsistent across others.

Although more research is needed, the Alzheimer’s Association supports the use of music therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Playing Music at Home

You can incorporate music into your daily routine without a music therapist. If music brings you or your loved one joy and comfort or leads to a positive emotional response, it’s worth including as a regular part of your day to enhance overall happiness and well-being.

Several myALZteam members shared their positive experiences with music listening at home:

  • “Music was great for my husband. Whenever we played his favorite songs, he sang along and never forgot the words.”
  • “In my mom’s care facility, residents like songs they are familiar with.”
  • “My wife loves to listen to the 1940s big band music. It brings back childhood memories, relaxes her, and helps her sleep.”
  • “My husband listens to music all the time. I can see how it calms and grounds him in good memories. The gift of remembering makes him so happy.”
  • “I’ve noticed music is soothing and brings a sparkle to my husband’s eyes. He even tries to remember the words and sing along.”
  • “My mom is in end-of-life care now, but she loves music! She perks up, mouths words to songs she knows, and even smiles. Music is magic!”

Tips for Using Music At Home

Here are some tips for music interventions at home:

  • Let your loved one choose the music, if possible.
  • If they need help, select popular songs from their teenage or young adult years.
  • Include familiar music or a favorite song from a special memory you share.
  • Use ad-free music sources to avoid confusion or irritation.
  • Encourage your loved one to move, clap, sing, or dance if they can do so safely.
  • Make a note of which songs or genres have positive effects.
  • Turn the music down or off if they seem agitated.
  • Experiment with headphones.
  • Use music as part of the daily routine or as needed.
  • Let grandchildren and other family members help by making playlists.

As a caregiver, music can help you, too. Whether you use it to relax at the end of a long day, remember special moments with your loved one, or dance to an upbeat tempo, making playlists for yourself can be an act of self-care.

Finding a Music Therapist

If you’d like to enroll your loved one in a music therapy program, the American Music Therapy Association can help. To find a music therapist in your area, search their online directory or call 301-589-3300.

If your loved one is in a nursing home or memory care center, ask a social worker or therapist if they offer music therapy sessions.

On the Psychology Today website, you can use the therapist search function. Choose “Music Therapy” as the specialty and search by location.

Some states or regions have music therapy associations or organizations that may be able to direct you to professionals.

You can also connect with other myALZTeam members in your area. Another caregiver might be familiar with local music therapy resources and be able to point you in the right direction.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myALZTeam, the social network for people with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones, more than 85,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Have you used music therapy to help someone with Alzheimer’s? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

References
  1. The Effect of Music Therapy on Cognitive Functions in Patients With Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials — Alzheimer's Research & Therapy
  2. Where Are Memories Stored in the Brain? — The University of Queensland
  3. Music Intervention Approaches for Alzheimer’s Disease: A Review of the Literature — Frontiers in Neuroscience
  4. Music: The Last Thing We Forget — Frontiers for Young Minds
  5. Music Therapy — Cleveland Clinic
  6. What Is Music Therapy? — American Music Therapy Association
  7. Music Therapy: More Than Just Entertainment — National Alliance on Mental Illness
  8. Music Therapy With Specific Populations: Fact Sheets, Resources & Bibliographies — American Music Therapy Association
  9. Music Therapy — Lewy Body Dementia Resource Center
  10. Professional Requirements for Music Therapists — American Music Therapy Association
  11. Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures — Alzheimer’s Association
  12. Effects of Music on Agitation in Dementia: A Meta-Analysis — Frontiers in Psychology
  13. Musical Bridges to Memory — Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders
  14. The Impact of Music and Memory on Resident Level Outcomes in California Nursing Homes — The Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine
  15. Music as Medicine for Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia — Northwestern Medicine
  16. Music & Memory Reduces Dementia Medications and Aggressive Behavior — UC Davis Health Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center
  17. Art and Music — Alzheimer’s Association
  18. UChicago Medicine Adds Music Therapy Option for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients — The University of Chicago Medicine
  19. Caregivers Take Note — Music as Therapy — Alzheimer’s Association
  20. Find a Music Therapy — Psychology Today

Posted on May 7, 2024
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Ifeanyi Nwaka, M.D. earned his medical degree from the American University of Antigua College of Medicine. Learn more about him here.
Suzanne Mooney writes about people, pets, health and wellness, and travel. Learn more about her here.

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