Your Brain Comes Alive With The Sound of Music

Henry sits silently, slumped in his wheelchair, barely able to move or respond verbally. He is 92 years old and has dementia. But then something extraordinary happens. He speaks animatedly for the first time in years, answers questions and recalls lost memories.

Henry has come to life. How could such a remarkable transformation come about?

Henry comes alive when headphones are put over his ears. He is listening to some of his favorite music. His eyes open wide, he starts swaying and singing. After the headphones are removed, he is able to talk about the music he loves.

“I’m crazy about music. Cab Calloway was my number one band-guy I liked,” he says, before giving us a performance of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Henry was one of a number of patients featured in a documentary calledAlive Inside, premiered in New York in April, 2013. The film demonstrates the positive effects of music on patients like him.

Singing for The Brain

The Alzheimer’s Society in the UK runs a program called Singing for The Brain. Patients in group classes respond to music, especially old songs they once knew and loved. They get used to using their voices again, and the benefits last, because they continue to engage in conversations when they get home. For many, it is the highlight of their week.

A recent study carried out at an East Coast care home found that singing popular songs from musicals like The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz andOklahoma had a beneficial effect on patients with moderate to severe dementia. They scored better on cognitive and drawing tests and reported a better quality of life.

Many studies have reported improved mental ability, mood, attention and general cognitive skills from listening to music. Music can also enhance social interaction and improve how long and how well a person sleeps.

The well-known neurologist and author Olive Sacks states that “the power of music is very remarkable. One sees Parkinsonian patients unable to walk, but able to dance perfectly well or patients almost unable to talk who are able to sing perfectly well.

“Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring with it memory. Music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

You Need to Flex Your Memory Muscles

Exactly how music has this effect isn’t known for sure, but it is known to influence many areas of both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The amygdala is an area of the brain that holds our emotional memory. Anything that is a stimulus to our emotions will bring back these memories, and that’s what music does.

Also, musical knowledge is stored in procedural or muscle memory, the kind associated with routines and repetitive activities. This part of the mind remains largely intact in dementia patients.

There’s no doubt that singing and listening to music is beneficial to dementia sufferers. But is it also useful for prevention? The good news is that regular playing of a musical instrument will lower your chances of succumbing to dementia. According to one study, those who spend the most time playing a musical instrument have a 63% lower risk of dementia.

So dust off the violin that’s been sitting idle for far too long, or if you don’t play an instrument, it’s never too late to learn. And it might just protect you from this devastating illness.


  1. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/11/alzheimers-patients-brains-boosted-sound-music-singing