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The Link Between Music and Memory | Retirement Center Management


The Benefits of Music and Memory Care

Music can be powerful medicine for the human brain. Researchers have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. It can reduce stress levels, increase productivity, improve depression symptoms, and enhance the overall quality of life.

And in someone with memory loss due to dementia, music has the power to bring back memories.

Memory and music are so intertwined that many memory care communities integrate music therapy into their care plans.

Music and memory

Research has shown our long-term memory is divided up into two types: implicit and explicit.

Explicit memory is a deliberate, conscious remembering of the past and involves things like textbook learning or experiential memories — things that must be consciously brought into awareness.

Implicit memories are our unconscious and automatic memories, such as playing a musical instrument or recalling the words to a song when someone sings the first few words.

Explicit memory fades in the absence of recall, while implicit memory is more enduring and may last a lifetime even in the absence of further practice. The explicit memory systems become damaged by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Implicit memory can be formed by passively listening to background music.

Music is one of the few ways to penetrate the brain of someone with dementia. Vivid memories can be retrieved by listening to music a person with dementia heard when they were young. Despite profound memory loss and even a loss of knowledge about who they are, people with dementia often show a remarkable memory for music.

Benefits of music for seniors

Music may often get some credit for “bringing back the brain” in those with memory loss. But music also provides a number of benefits for older adults who have no cognitive decline.

For example, an article by the National Association of Music Merchants reported that:

  • Adults ages 60 to 85 without previous musical experience showed improved processing speed and memory after just three months of weekly 30-minute piano lessons and three hours a week of practice; the control group showed no changes in these abilities.
  • Stanford University School of Medicine conducted a study with 30 depressed people over 80 years of age and found that participants in a weekly music therapy group were less anxious, less distressed, and had higher self-esteem.
  • Playing music increases human growth hormone (HgH) production among active older Americans. The findings of the study, conducted by The University of Miami, revealed that the test group who took group keyboard lessons showed significantly higher levels of HgH than the control group of people who did not make music.  

The nonprofit organization Songs & Smiles works with families throughout the Alzheimer’s disease journey, using music as a way to connect caregivers with their loved ones who have been diagnosed with some form of memory loss. The group said music is important to this group of people because:

  • Music is a nonmedical way to help manage symptoms of dementia
  • Music reduces anxiety and depression
  • Music is inherently social, so it helps reduce social isolation
  • Music improves mood and quality of life
  • Music promotes confidence and self-esteem
  • Music supports retention of speech and language skills

Music and memory care

Even if your loved one is receiving professional dementia care, you can harness the power of music for their benefit. It doesn’t necessarily require a knowledge of music therapy, either — just an understanding of the type of music your loved one enjoyed, and knowing how to integrate music into their day. Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Think about what music your loved one always liked. What genre of music did your loved one enjoy — classical, old country, jazz or maybe rock? Any special artists they adored? What music evokes memories of happy times in their life? Put together a playlist that focuses on the information you know about your loved one’s music tastes. Involve family and friends by asking them to suggest songs or make playlists.
  • Set the mood. If you’re visiting your loved one and they seem agitated, calm your loved one by playing music or singing a song that's familiar and soothing. When you'd like to boost your loved one's mood, use more upbeat or faster-paced music.
  • Avoid overstimulation. When playing music, eliminate competing noises. Turn off the TV. Shut the door. Set the volume based on your loved one's hearing ability. Opt for music that isn't interrupted by commercials, which can cause confusion.
  • Encourage movement. Help your loved one to clap along or tap their feet to the beat. If possible, consider dancing with your loved one.
  • Bring an instrument. If you play an easily portable instrument like a guitar, ukulele or harmonica, or if the dementia care facility has a piano, ask to play music for your loved one and other residents. You might ask what types of music would be most appropriate for residents first.
  • Sing along. Singing along to music together with your loved one can boost the mood and enhance your relationship. Some early studies also suggest musical memory functions differently than other types of memory, and singing can help stimulate unique memories.
  • Pay attention to your loved one's response. If your loved one seems to enjoy particular songs, play them often. If your loved one reacts negatively to a particular song or type of music, choose something else.

Dementia Care at a Retirement Center Management community

At every RCM community, our Memory Care program offers an environment, caring associates and purposeful activities that are designed to help each memory care resident live life well.

If you’d like to learn more about our senior living communities and the ways in which we foster a high quality of life and gracious living at every stage, please contact us.

Retirement Center Management


6363 Woodway Dr Ste. 300 Houston, TX 77057