Benefits of music therapy for people with dementia

Created date

November 5th, 2018
A woman works with a music therapist

Music therapy can enhance social skills, assess cognitive ability, and help with language recall.

Music therapy as a professional specialty didn’t come about until after World War II, when musicians visited veterans hospitals to entertain the patients who were dealing with physical and emotional trauma. Hospital staff noticed the significant positive responses by patients—both physically and mentally—and requested that the musicians be hired as employees. 

Therapy versus entertainment

The positive effects of music on human beings is obvious, even in people with cognitive deficits. “Whenever there is live music, residents’ faces light up,” says Steve Allen, a volunteer at an adult living facility in Valencia, Calif. “They clap their hands, their moods become more upbeat, and they interact with people around them.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, music adds something crucial to the lives of people with any dementia-related illness: enrichment. Even in the later stages of dementia, music provides a way for patients to express themselves and engage with other people.

But although any type of music is loosely considered therapeutic, is it actually therapy? “Simply playing music for patients is not the same as music therapy,” says Elizabeth Morgan, M.T.-B.C., a music therapist from LifeBridge Health’s Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, Md. “Music therapy is an evidence-based, goal-oriented therapy using music interventions individualized for the needs of individual clients.”

Music therapy can only be provided by credentialed professionals who have completed an approved music therapy program. Just like other therapists (such as physical or occupational therapists), music therapists have advanced education and training, and must take an examination administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists in order to be board-certified to practice.

Benefits validated by science

The overall goal of music therapy is to improve functioning and help clients improve their quality of life. There have been many findings about specific ways it helps.

A 2018 review of the scientific literature showed that music therapy (when performed by a certified music therapist) along with other treatments for people with dementia-related illness, may help decrease depression, anxiety, agitation, and aggression. In some instances, music therapy has been associated with patients being able to reduce or eliminate medications they take for behavioral problems.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, research on music therapy shows that it can also enhance social skills and help patients recall language. It can also be used as a diagnostic tool to assess cognitive ability.

Music therapy also benefits families and caregivers. It’s a way to spend enjoyable and meaningful time together in a creative and positive way. It can be relaxing and stimulate memories. It also provides respite from the daily stress of caregiving.

How it works

“Music is processed in several different regions of the brain,” Morgan says. “If someone is listening to music, they are stimulating several regions at the same time. This combined effect is one of the reasons that someone who has trouble with language can nevertheless remember all the words and sing along to a favorite song.”

Music therapy can take many forms. To be most effective, it needs to be tailored to the needs of the client. “We develop goals for the patient based on a full initial assessment,” Morgan says. “We collaborate with the patient’s health care team, including their families, to determine the patient’s needs and interests. We then formulate a treatment plan based on that information.”

Treatment techniques can involve having patients sing, play instruments, listen to music, combine music and movement, or even compose music. Therapists can work with individuals or groups.

“Specific goals are usually related to improving social, communication, and motor skills,” Morgan says. “We also work with patients who have emotional issues and work to modify behaviors such as aggression and agitation.”

When you think of how music can evoke so many feelings, it’s not hard to imagine that music therapists can use their skills to change a patient’s behavior. “A technique called the iso principle was developed in music therapy for mood management,” Morgan says. “It involves matching music to someone’s current mood and then modifying the music in some way to change their mood to something different, whether it is to calm them and reduce destructive behaviors or elevate their mood.”

The scientific community has become more interested in nonmedical therapies for treatment of many conditions, and research on the benefits of music therapy has increased. “With the way music helps to build connections in the brain,” Morgan says, “we still have a lot to learn about music therapy and how it can help people heal.”

Try these tips

If you don’t have access to a music therapist, or would like to use music with a loved one, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests:

• Use music that is familiar and enjoyable.

• If they are able, let your loved one choose the music.

• Use a music source that doesn’t have commercials (can be confusing).

• Eliminate competing noise such as the TV, open windows, or appliances.

• Make sure the music is not too loud.

• Encourage clapping, dancing, or any type of movement.

• Use tranquil, slower music to help your loved one relax or upbeat songs to boost mood.

How to find a music therapist

For more information or to find a music therapist, contact:

American Music Therapy Association

8455 Colesville Road, Suite 1000

Silver Spring, MD, 20910

Phone: 301-689-3300