The Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia

General Health

The Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia

The Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia

Music is used as a form of healing and self-expression and has been shown to improve cognitive function, such as memory, language and emotional functioning. Because of music’s significant impact on people’s lives, it’s often used as an effective treatment method for people with dementia. Music therapy for people with dementia is a specialized approach that harnesses the power of melodies, rhythms, and lyrics to address specific symptoms and challenges associated with the condition.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy has been proven to improve negative moods, stimulate cognitive skills, improve physical performance and help with communication. Music stimulates the part of the brain least affected by Alzheimer’s, so music therapy interventions enhance the overall quality of life of people with dementia.

What Is Music Therapy?

Guided by a board-certified music therapist, an approved music therapy program uses an individual’s response to music to affect positive changes in attitude, mood and overall health. There are four types of music therapy.

  • Receptive: Receptive music intervention involves listening to either live music or recorded familiar music and allows the listener to dance and move.
  • Re-creative: Re-creative therapy involves making music, such as singing or playing an instrument.
  • Improvisational: With improvisational therapy, an individual copies a series of sounds, including clapping or tapping out a short rhythm.
  • Composition: An individual may write an entire song, play music for a group or the therapist and then talk about how it made them feel.

How Does Music Therapy Help People With Dementia?

Dementia is characterized by memory impairment that interferes with an individual’s daily life and a loss of intellectual functioning. It also affects a person’s personality and can cause increased agitation or aggression.

Music therapy can help calm individuals with dementia and improve their behavior patterns, even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease when verbal communication is difficult. Music encourages positive interactions with family members and caregivers and stimulates memories associated with a particular song. It’s also used in dementia care to reduce annoying background noises that cause sensory overload in some patients.

Facilitates Cognitive Function

Research shows that listening to music affects large areas of the brain, including those involving movement, emotion, attention span and memory. Studies with a control group have also proved that musicians have better cognitive skills than those who don’t play or sing. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, music can enhance brain function, which may slow down cognitive decline. Even listening to music for a few hours a day as background noise while doing other activities can improve overall cognitive performance.


A compassionate musician playing the guitar for an elderly person in a wheelchair.


Relieves Pain & Promotes Healing

Listening to music releases endorphins, which are hormones that activate the opioid receptors in the brain. Also released during other activities, such as exercise, eating and laughing, these endorphins produce the same effect as taking pain medications. The effects are short-term but are achieved without narcotics or other pain medications that have side effects. For some older adults, singing and giving pain a voice and a way to escape is one way to seek relief holistically.

Helps Manage Anxiety & Stress

Listening to music releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that reverses negative feelings and makes you feel good. Music with a slower tempo, such as classical music, makes it easier for the brain to slow down and helps you relax. It increases feelings of calmness and helps you manage tension and even caregiver stress.

Boosts Socialization & Communication

Music is a universal language because it appears throughout the world, with or without the use of words. Teachers often use music to help with language development, and music therapists also use music to help smooth out speech impediments in people who stutter. For people with dementia, singing songs helps with memory development and vocabulary expansion, and music makes it easier to share feelings.

Music Therapy and Memory

Short-term memory loss is one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Long-term memories, especially those involving music, are some of the last memories to go. To evoke positive memories, it’s helpful to introduce favorite songs from childhood, including tunes from a favorite artist or a certain time in the individual’s life. Familiar music helps take a patient back in thought to better days. Music therapy doesn’t have the power to reverse cognitive decline, but it can improve the cognitive function that still exists.


Senior woman and her daughter listening to music together boosting positive mood.


How Does Music Affect the Brain and Emotions?

Music is well-known for its mood-boosting and therapeutic benefits. Even music with sad lyrics has been shown to improve mood and incite a variety of emotions, especially feelings of happiness. Listening to music lights up two main areas in the brain, the dorsal and the ventral striatum, which both release dopamine. People with dementia, even in the later stages of the disease when they’re unresponsive to other stimuli, tend to perk up, sing, sway to the music and seem much happier when listening to songs. This is because emotional memories tend to last and are the least affected by dementia.

What Type of Music Is Best for Dementia?

The best type of music for people with dementia includes songs with uplifting and positive lyrics and upbeat tempos. It helps to create a playlist of songs without commercials, which can be frustrating and cause confusion for those with memory issues. These songs can be listened to through headphones or a speaker system. The volume should be loud enough to drown out background noise but not too loud. When listening to music in a group, a music therapist should encourage active participation through hand clapping and dancing. When supervising a patient or loved one listening to music, watch for signs of enjoyment and base future playlists on favorite titles that invoke happy memories.

How Memory Care Communities Use Music Therapy for People With Dementia

Music interventions are used in many ways in memory care communities to support people with dementia. Those who play instruments are provided with opportunities to play. Some facilities have a music room with a piano. Music can also be part of the memory care activities and programs offered in memory care communities, as it has shown significant benefits for individuals with dementia. Music therapy may be given in a group setting or individual therapy meetings. Some elderly patients enjoy making music with a group, such as singing in a choir, while others enjoy quiet time listening with headphones. Dances and concerts by outside guests may also be scheduled for both social and cognitive benefits throughout the early stages of the disease.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, we can help. Contact us at Cedar Creek Memory Care Homes, the leading memory care facilities in Maryland for more information about the best dementia care options available and how we can help you or your loved one navigate this challenging journey.

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