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.