Everybody’s favorite piano man Billy Joel once said, “I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”
The truth of those words remains even when our memories start to fail us. Study after study has shown the ability of music to reach deep into the brain to allow people to remember songs when they can’t remember people or places. Nonverbal patients dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s have been known to sing when hearing a favorite song—even when they can’t carry on a conversation.
Study after study has shown the ability of music to reach deep into the brain to allow people to remember songs when they can’t remember people or places.
But the benefit doesn’t just stop at listening: While music therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, playing music also offers benefits beyond just creating a soothing atmosphere for seniors dealing with conditions that affect memory.
Music makes the brain work
Music is such an important part of our lives, and all that music is good for the brain. Listening to or playing music uses six different parts of the brain, forcing the brain to make connections – and create new ones – among the different areas.
“When you learn a new instrument, some people like to compare it to learning a new language, especially if you’re learning how to read music,” said Abigail Hanlon, music therapist for Goodwin Living, a senior care company in Virginia. “Learning a new instrument can create new neural pathways in your brain between different regions. That can be really important, especially if you’re someone who has experienced some loss of cognition.”
When one part of the brain is damaged, the brain has to compensate for that damaged area. Playing music accesses different parts of the brain at the same time, making it more likely that those with memory deficits can recall a song. That’s why playing an instrument can be so good for seniors in memory care.
“They may not remember your name, but they can sit down and play any song they have learned in their lifetime,” Hanlon says. “That’s special to music.”
Music creates community
Listening to music provides benefits to those with memory challenges, but playing music can create a sense of community that goes beyond just passively listening.
“It can simply be very fun to play an instrument, especially with other people,” said music therapist Jake Beck, owner of Upbeat Music Therapy Services, a Washington-based music therapy company. “A metric we use is ‘quality of life,’ and having fun can check that box. Music play is also a very social activity and provides a motivation to do so that is absent in some other gatherings or activities.”
Hanlon tells a story of a gentleman at her facility who used to play saxophone when he was in college. During the pandemic, he decided to pick it up again.
“He sits out in his hallway at 2 p.m., and people come out in the hallway and socialize,” she said.
Getting seniors playing music together is also important, no matter the talent level.
“The act of playing instruments in a group setting does wonders for socialization,” she said. “You’re not only perceiving what you’re doing but also what others are doing. The more social you are, the more likely you are to maintain your cognition.”
Music doesn’t care how old you are
When caring for someone with memory deficits, it can be easy to think the time for learning new things has passed—but that doesn’t apply to music, said Hanlon.
“For music therapy groups, we have instruments every session,” she said. “I have a big box of percussion instruments. If they can learn how to play an instrument right away, they are more likely to come back. Residents are more likely to participate when instruments are involved.”
And seniors don’t have to be musically talented to benefit from playing an instrument.
“You can pick up any instrument and be terrible at it, but if it’s something you love, it’s just as beneficial as for someone who is über-talented,” Hanlon says.
The benefits of learning to play an instrument aren’t just limited to the person playing, either.
“Folks with and without dementia benefit from socialization, engagement, quality of life, and especially reminiscence that is therapeutic,” Beck said. “I’ve seen this many, many times, as with people unable to speak that suddenly sing lyrics from preferred songs of their childhood, or with a participant who is immediately engaged and makes meaningful eye contact and taps their toes. Family and friends also benefit by being privy to their loved one’s reminiscences related to music and are able to socialize and engage with them where that had been previously challenging.”
Music is easy to add to your senior’s life
If you want to help your loved one add more music to their lives, you have plenty of options. If you’re caring for a senior at home, check for senior music programs in your community where instrument play is included, or check with a local music store about lessons. They may even have someone who can come to your home to teach.
Both Hanlon and Beck suggest looking for programs led by a music therapist.
“There is a distinction between simply listening to music, even if it’s live, and having ‘music therapy,’” Beck said. “The former is certainly beneficial and can be therapeutic, but the latter offers trained professionals whose job and focus is to maximize engagement and enjoyment among their clients.”
For seniors in a memory care facility, check with the activities director at the facility to see if they offer any music therapy programs. If they don’t, encourage them to investigate the local options. Many music therapists will offer programs designed for memory care facilities.
If there aren’t any options in your area, simply encouraging your senior to learn an instrument through video instruction can also provide benefits. You can even plan to learn with them, making it a social event as well.
There’s no doubt your senior doesn’t have to be the piano man (or woman) to benefit from learning to play an instrument. They can experience the brain health benefits and improved quality of life that comes with actively playing music—no matter their skill level.