How Music Can Awaken Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

In the late 1950’s, pio­neer­ing free jazz band­leader Sun Ra played a gig at a Chica­go men­tal hos­pi­tal, booked there by his man­ag­er Alton Abra­ham, who had an inter­est in alter­na­tive med­i­cine. The exper­i­ment in musi­cal ther­a­py worked won­ders. One patient who had not moved or spo­ken in years report­ed­ly got up, walked over to the piano, and yelled out, “you call that music!”

The anec­dote illus­trates just one expe­ri­ence among untold mil­lions in which a per­son suf­fer­ing from a debil­i­tat­ing neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion responds pos­i­tive­ly, even mirac­u­lous­ly, it seems, to music.

As famed neu­rol­o­gist and writer Oliv­er Sacks puts it in his book Musi­cophil­ia, “musi­cal per­cep­tion, musi­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty, musi­cal emo­tion and musi­cal mem­o­ry can sur­vive long after oth­er forms of mem­o­ry have dis­ap­peared.”

This med­ical fact makes musi­cal ther­a­py an ide­al inter­ven­tion for patients suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s dis­ease and demen­tia. In the short video above, Sacks describes his vis­its to patients in var­i­ous old age homes. “Some of them are con­fused, some are agi­tat­ed, some are lethar­gic, some have almost lost lan­guage,” he says, “but all of them, with­out excep­tion, respond to music.”

We can see just such a response in the clip at the top, in which the bare­ly respon­sive Hen­ry Dry­er, a 92-year-old nurs­ing home res­i­dent with demen­tia, trans­forms when he hears music. “The philoso­pher Kant called music ‘the quick­en­ing art,’ and Henry’s being quick­ened,” says Sacks says of the dra­mat­ic change, “he’s being brought to life.” Sud­den­ly lucid and hap­py, Hen­ry looks up and says, “I’m crazy about music. Beau­ti­ful sounds.”

The clip comes from a doc­u­men­tary called Alive Inside, win­ner of a 2014 Sun­dance Audi­ence Award (see the trail­er above), a film that shows us sev­er­al musi­cal “quick­en­ings” like Henry’s. “Before Dry­er start­ed using his iPod,” notes The Week, “he could only answer yes-or-no questions—and some­times he sat silent­ly and still for hours at a time.” Now, he sings, car­ries on con­ver­sa­tions and can “even recall things from years ago.”

Sacks com­ments that “music imprints itself on the brain deep­er than any oth­er human expe­ri­ence,” evok­ing emo­tions in ways that noth­ing else can. A 2010 Boston Uni­ver­si­ty study showed that Alzheimer’s patients “learned more lyrics when they were set to music rather than just spo­ken.” Like­wise, researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah found music to be “an alter­na­tive route for com­mu­ni­cat­ing with patients.”

As senior author of the Utah study, Dr. Nor­man Fos­ter, says, “lan­guage and visu­al mem­o­ry path­ways are dam­aged ear­ly as the dis­ease pro­gress­es, but per­son­al­ized music pro­grams can acti­vate the brain, espe­cial­ly for patients who are los­ing con­tact with their envi­ron­ment.” See the effects for your­self in this extra­or­di­nary film, and learn more about Sacks’ adven­tures with music and the brain in the 2007 dis­cus­sion of Musi­cophil­ia, just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sun Ra Plays a Music Ther­a­py Gig at a Men­tal Hos­pi­tal; Inspires Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

Dis­cov­er the Retire­ment Home for Elder­ly Musi­cians Cre­at­ed by Giuseppe Ver­di: Cre­at­ed in 1899, It Still Lives On Today

The French Vil­lage Designed to Pro­mote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to the Pio­neer­ing Exper­i­ment

In Touch­ing Video, Peo­ple with Alzheimer’s Tell Us Which Mem­o­ries They Nev­er Want to For­get

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.