Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s


Music is therapy for everyone, not just people who have Alzheimer’s disease. I think that each of us has experienced, if not euphoria, at least a certain reverie while listening to an especially enjoyable piece of music. Whether your tastes are for the classics, jazz, or rock-and-roll; or if you prefer listening to soul, country music, show tunes, or whatever; you will admit that music has the power to move you. This emotional attachment that we, as human beings, have for music, is the basis for music therapy, the reason it works so well. It is why we are so passionate about music therapy for Alzheimer’s and all other forms of dementia.

The power of music to soothe the heart and to positively affect the mind and the soul was known in antiquity. Dr. Case Adams, board certified alternative medical practitioner, wrote in a May 6, 2010 article for Yahoo Voices:

Music therapy has been documented through the centuries as a credible form of healing. The philosophy of music has also been found prominently in the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Homer prescribed music to counteract mental anguish, and Asclepiades of Bithynia is said to have prescribed Phrygian music for sciatica and other illnesses. Democritus prescribed various flute melodies, and Pythagoras is said to have clinically applied music for nervousness. The respected Roman physician Galen applied music to his healing repertoire. Among other therapies, Galen prescribed a “medical bath” inclusive of flute song for nerve pain. The famous sixteenth century Swiss physician Paracelsus was a strong believer in sound therapy as well. His recommendations included not only herbal remedies, but colors and sound to achieve health.
Both Aristotle and Plato also suggested music therapy was useful for the healing of society and people in general.

What is Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s?

Music therapy for Alzheimer’s doesn’t differ substantially from music therapy for anyone else.  It is the desired affect that changes with circumstances. For someone with a physical injury, a broken bone for example, it might improve and quicken healing. An individual with chronic pain might derive relief from that pain through the therapy of music. Music may help a person with dementia better communicate, to remember, even to function at a higher cognitive level.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship….” They go on to say that music therapy can be used to:

  • Promote Wellness
  • Manage Stress
  • Alleviate Pain
  • Express Feelings
  • Enhance Memory
  • Improve Communication
  • Promote Physical Rehabilitation

Technically, music therapy requires a trained music therapist, one who can tailor a playlist, and otherwise define and implement a music intervention. Unfortunately, we are not all in a position to find and hire a certified therapist to create individualized music programs for the person or people in our care. This article will give you some basis for understanding and implementing music therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Loretta Quinn has helped us to create these recommendations. Dr. Quinn is a Registered Music Therapist, as well as a Dementia Professional, so she has a lot to say about music therapy for Alzheimer’s. The guidelines we have created together may be the next best thing to having your own personal specialist. You can see her at work on this video, and read the paper she wrote for us. Be warned, Dr. Quinn sounds funny, and she has a funny way of spelling certain words, like socialisation and behaviour, but apparently nobody notices those quirks in Australia, where she lives and works.

Dr. Quinn identifies four major activities that make musical therapy so suitable for people with dementia:

  1. Music and movement
  2. Word Cueing
  3. Instrument Playing
  4. Singing and Reminiscing

She backs up the importance of those categories with plenty of published evidence, like we do here.
She has developed a program that you can order directly from her website. Also available is a CD or audio download of songs that she has personally selected.

These benefits can be enjoyed by anyone in a therapeutic situation, but music therapy has some particularly amazing benefits for people who have dementia including Alzheimer’s disease. Read more from Dr. Quinn.

Music Therapy and Dementia

Sometimes music brings on a change that is so amazing that we feel compelled to recommend you, as a care-provider, keep music in your repertoire. In the video below, for example, witness the profound change in Henry brought on by music. Henry has been in a care facility for about ten years and has become non-responsive and uncommunicative as the result of dementia. His apathy is obvious when his daughter asks him a few simple questions at the beginning of the video. After listening to music for a few minutes, Henry becomes…. Well, see for yourself:

We want to thank Music & Memory for this marvelous video account.

Henry provides us with a dynamic example of the power of music therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. Listening to familiar music profoundly affected his ability to communicate and to socialize, and it aroused old, perhaps dormant memories. At the risk of appearing to exaggerate, it brought him back to life. Not all sessions of music therapy will be as amazing as this, but there are plenty of case studies and plenty of clinical evidence that indicates music therapy has very real and beneficial effect for people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

A study published in the Journal of Music Therapy, 2000, looked at the effects of music therapy on language. Twenty-six men and women from an Alzheimer’s care facility participated in either music therapy or a conversation group in which pictures were used to stimulate discussion. The authors of the study concluded: “our results suggest that music therapy interventions may positively influence the speech content and fluency in people affected by DAT (dementia of the Alzheimer’s type).” They were careful to note that their findings are not conclusive, but went on to say:

Certainly, more research in the area of music therapy effects on language functioning in persons affected by DAT are needed. Therapeutic implications, including the preservation and enhancement of communication between patients and their caregivers, friends and family members, are profound.
Read more about this study. It seems to confirm what becomes so obvious while watching this video. Henry’s verbalization becomes so much more vital and fluent after listening to the music on his iPod, and he was certainly more willing and able to talk to those around him.

Music and Reminiscence

Music therapy for Alzheimer's | Music for reminiscence
Old favorites and favorite artists are the way to go when selecting music for reminiscence.




Music therapy can also be a tool for reminiscence therapy. Perhaps more accurately, music therapy and reminiscence therapy will augment each other like no other pair of tools can. You saw (in the video above) how Henry lit up when remembering the influence music had on his younger self; when remembering details of that influence, like his favorite musician and song.  There is not a consensus among researchers that music has positive effects on the behavior, memory, or cognition of persons who have dementia including Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, there is certainly enough evidence, both clinical and anecdotal, to warrant further investigation. And since the most severe side-effects of music therapy are things like toe-tapping, singing, swaying, and maybe even dancing, we heartily recommend that music be included in an overall treatment plan for anyone who has dementia. Don’t wait for the research to catch up with what is so obviously beneficial.

Much of what we know of how music benefits people with dementia involves emotional and behavioral affects.

Like art therapy, music therapy for Alzheimer’s is a discipline that requires training and musical proficiency . Music therapists are degreed and certified. Music therapy involves more than just listening to music.


Research: Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease

There is not a consensus among researchers that music has positive effects on the behavior, memory, or cognition of persons who have dementia. On the other hand, there is certainly enough evidence, both clinical and anecdotal, to warrant further investigation. And since the most severe side-effects of music therapy are things like toe-tapping, singing, swaying, and maybe even dancing, we heartily reccommend that music be included in an overall treatment plan for anyone who has dementia. Don’t wait for the research to catch up with what is so obviously beneficial. Provide music therapy for Alzheimer’s disease at every opportunity.

Make music part of an overall treatment plan for people who have dementia.

Reminiscence Music

Like so many alternative therapies for dementia, music therapy has gotten a lot of recent attention. A 2000 study (J Music Ther. 2000 Fall;37(3):170-82) reported reminiscence music to be effective against depression: ” Results indicated that participation in small group reminiscence focused music therapy groups might help to reduce depressive symptoms in elderly people with dementia.”  Another group reported (International Psychogeriatrics: page 1 of 9 C 2006 International Psychogeriatric Association, doi:10.1017), “Music therapy is a safe and effective method for treating agitation
and anxiety in moderately severe and severe AD.”

Reminiscence music is different for everyone. Music by The Beatles, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Moody Blues and other groups of that era cause all sorts of memories to flood into my head. But sometimes so does a song by Frank Sinatra, or even Doris Day can do the trick. I can remember specifically once sitting at the kitchen table while my mom was washing the dishes, listening to Doris Day sing Que Sera, Sera. I couldn’t have been more than six years old.

If your not sure what music will be best for reminiscence for a certain individual, play music that was popular when that person was younger, anywhere from his childhood until his middle twenties is a good place to start. If the music brings a smile to his face it will likely do the trick. If he smiles and starts singing, make darned sure you keep that song.

Background Music

 Structured music therapy sessions are beneficial, but music can also be helpful when used in a less formal way.  A report in the Journal of Music Therapy (Winter 2007) found twenty-eight people with Alzheimer’s, “show clear increase in positive behaviors, such as conversation, smiling, or moving to the rhythm, and a reduction in negative behavior such as wandering, fidgeting and showing aggression towards others,”  when music was played in the background.

A study (International Psychogeriatrics:  2006 International Psychogeriatric Association doi:10.1017) concluded that music therapy reduces “activity disturbances” in people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. The authors of this study conclude that, “activity disturbances and anxiety can be affected by the patient’s participation in music therapy.”  One observation of the authors of this latter study that I find particularly intriguing is that, “active participation in music sessions could give some meaning to the lives of patients who have lost the ability to create meaningful activity. Their desire for activity would subsequently be met and symptoms of meaningless activities lessened.” This supports our contention that providing meaningful, age-and stage-appropriate activity is one of the most important things you, as a carer, can do for you care partner.


Incorporating music into the daily care regimens of individuals with dementia may indeed be a valuable strategy and cost effective therapeutic intervention to reduce the overall incidence of agitated behavior and decrease the need for restraints.

Music and Memory: Then there is a 2010 study published in Neuropshchologia that concluded that, “patients with AD (Alzheimer’s disease) performed better on a task of recognition memory for the lyrics of songs when those lyrics were accompanied at encoding by a sung recording than when they were accompanied by a spoken recording. These results suggest a fundamental difference in the encoding and retrieval processes for musical versus non-musical stimuli between patients with AD and healthy older adults.”  This suggests to me that we may be able to use the brains plasticity to re-teach certain basic skills that have been lost to dementia.

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About Author

Degrees in psychology and education as well as professional certifications in business administration and website development gave John the ideal credentials to co-found and develop an internet presence dedicated to helping caregivers provide exceptional care to those who are no longer able to care for themselves because of the impact of dementia. Since 2007, Best Alzheimer's Products has earned national and international recognition as a place to go for help and advice, with the goal of making life better for people living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.


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