Music and the brain

Dementia is one of the most pressing health issues currently facing global society; someone in the world develops dementia every 3 seconds ¹. Whilst finding a cure or effective form of prevention is of course a major area of research, we concurrently need to be exploring opportunities for managing all forms of dementia, and ensuring the highest possible levels of wellbeing for the people affected.

Dementia is a collective term which covers any rapid change in someone’s thinking abilities. It can be revealed in different ways, affecting language, emotion, behaviour and memory, depending on what is the route cause and which parts of the brain have sustained damage. For most people dementia progresses slowly, which can mean that they can live with the condition for many years. There is no cure, though doctors can try to prevent further damage and slow the progress of the disease in patients with some types of dementia. In other cases, treatments focus on alleviating symptoms and helping patients to live as well as they can with the syndrome.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, but there are other types of dementia too – click here to find out more.

That’s where music comes in. There is growing evidence that music can play a part in helping people with dementia live happy and fulfilled lives after they are diagnosed.

Scientists are finding that whether it’s classical, hip hop, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, heavy metal, punk, think of a style and name it, your brain prefers the same music you do. Recent studies have found that people living with dementia respond better to the music they grew up listening to. If you play someone’s favourite music, different parts of the brain light up. Ask yourself, ‘have you ever heard a song and you’re immediately brought back to a moment in time?’

We often form associations between personal milestones and music. Upon hearing a meaningful song, it creates a ‘flashback effect’ triggering a series of emotions and deeply personal memories. ·       This flashback effect created by personally meaningful music is retained until the very late stages of dementia. Listening to personally meaningful music can help alleviate the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (Cady, Harris & Knappenberger, 2008).

Put simply – listening to personally meaningful music can help alleviate the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.

Click here to find out how the brain responds to music.

  • Recent advances in neuroscience means we can capture in real time, using brain imaging methods, like fMRI scans, how our brain understands and processes music.
  • We now understand that music is processed across the ‘whole-brain’ rather than one specific brain region, as was previously thought
  • The acoustic blend of music is made up of many different elements, such as, timbre, pitch, rhythm. These elements of music are initially processed in the auditory cortex.
  • When additional components of music come into play, such as memory and song meaning, the processing becomes more widely distributed across the brain (Warren, 2008). This wide distribution mediates our behavioural response to music e.g. tapping our foot to the beat.

To see this visually check out this image created by Playlist for Life.

Why and how music cuts through dementia

  • Music engages auditory, visual and motor regions of the brain
  • Music has been shown to help reduce the behavioural symptoms of dementia (anxiety, depression)
  • Why? – Regions of the brain proposed to be responsible for musical memory (Anterior Cingulate Gyrus & Supplementary Motor Area (pre-SMA) (Jacobsen,Stelzer, Fritz, Chételat, La Joie, & Turner, 2015) are thought to be one of the last regions affected by neuropathology of dementia (Baird & Samson, 2009). This may explain why despite an overall cognitive decline, individuals with dementia respond to music.

It’s clear that when delivered effectively, music gives carers and loved ones an avenue through which to sustain relationships and share experiences. It can help to minimise the often-upsetting symptoms of dementia such as agitation, anxiety and depression. Moreover, it can help to improve a person’s wellbeing and quality of life.

The evidence
The music and dementia sector is supported by a robust and growing evidence base which is quickly gaining traction. The continually developing research base is effectively demonstrating the range of benefits of music for people living with dementia.

There is much to be celebrated in the existing literature, which shows that music can promote a range of hugely beneficial outcomes for people with dementia. Moreover, when used appropriately and in a meaningful way, the use of music has no known negative impacts. Click here to view the latest research.

If you agree with the above and believe that music is a necessity for people living with dementia sign up for our taskforce.


Useful links


Special thanks

Dr. Catherine Jordan, Ph.D

Dr. Catherine Jordan, Ph.D., M.Sc. Atlantic Fellow from the Global Brain Health Institute University of California San Francisco | Trinity College Dublin kindly helped us put this information together. Check our Catherine’s insightful Musical Brain blog to find out more.

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