People using music as a form of therapy isn’t unheard of. It has bought plenty of people back from their darkest times with illnesses such as depression and dementia. Although it technically isn’t a medication, there is not a doubt that it is powerful enough to positively change someone’s life.
“I have seen deeply demented patients weep or shiver as they listen to music they have never heard before, and I think that they can experience the entire range of feelings the rest of us can… Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.” – Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia.
When Emma* was around 6 years old, her Nan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Despite not understanding the condition, she could tell her Nan was different.
“I saw my Nan go from this loveable, outgoing and happy woman to a frail, angry shell of what she used to be. We had to put her in a home as it became too much for my granddad to cope with as she deteriorated throughout the years. I started to visit less frequently, especially when she completely forgot who I was.” It soon got to the point where most communication with her Nan was shouting, crying, and her Nan telling people to go away.
“However, on one visit, I recall walking into the living room area where my Nan and a few others with dementia and Alzheimer’s were sitting and the radio was on. As the song (sadly I can’t remember what it was) came on, her face lit up in recognition of it, and it was the first time in a long time that I’d seen some form of recognition in her eyes. For those few minutes, she wasn’t the woman I’d come to know, but the one that I had memories of during my early childhood as she remembered the song.”
There are countless examples of music aiding those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. But what actually happens when you listen to music? How does music actually affect the brain? Renee Schapiro, M.Sc, expert in music therapy and dementia, explains that “Music has long been used as an effective non-intrusive form of therapy for individuals with dementia.
“Patients with dementia are capable of experiencing intense emotional responses to music. Recognizing the importance of autobiographical memory in maintaining a sense of self, researchers found evidence to support music’s potential as an effective tool in triggering memory recall for patients with dementia. In several studies, music was found to be more effective at eliciting memories than silence or other auditory sounds. Music positively affects the emotions, memory recall abilities, and well being of patients with dementia.”
But, it isn’t just the music itself that helps people to remember – it’s what it’s associated with. Think about your favourite song, and why it’s your favourite song. Is it the song itself? Or is it the memory associated with it? Charlie’s* uncle suffers from dementia, but like Emma’s Nan, when given an iPod full of songs from his past, he started to remember details from his life pre-diagnosis. Songs from his teenage years helped him recollect memories from school, memories of friendships and family, and memories of who he was. The songs on the iPod were chosen specifically because of the memories linked to them. Charlie said “one of the songs was one that my gran was obsessed with, so it was always on in their house when they were growing up, and when my uncle heard it, you could see on his face that he was remembering just messing around as a kid”.
Ms Schapiro said, “while it’s been shown that there are specific “musical moments” that most often lead to emotional responses, it has also been suggested that the most influential and positive effects of music derive from extra-musical content. For example, songs that remind people of their past friendships and events tend to hold preference over music without such associations.
“When asked to share memories, the memories that come to mind most easily tend to be very emotional in nature. There is a great deal of research on the role of emotion in forming memories, and it has been shown that the amygdala (the “emotion center” of the brain) is active in information encoding and consolidation. Considering that the primary pathways to recall memories are damaged in dementia, researchers and music therapists suggest that music stimulates secondary pathways through emotional responses and arousal.”
Charlie continued, “I know my uncle isn’t exactly who he was before, and he’s never going to be; but it’s just nice knowing that the person he used to be is still in there. Especially for my family, it’s a huge deal when he remembers something we thought he’d forgotten, and it genuinely is linked to music. Hearing something he recognises makes the room light up, and it’s almost like he is who he used to be.”
Emma’s Nan and Charlie’s uncle aren’t who they were before diagnosis, but they’re much closer when listening to music than without. To these people, and plenty of others around the world, music more than just noise. It’s something that helps them remember better times, and something that just makes them feel like them.
*Names have been changed for privacy.