Does Music Help Dementia Patients?

What happens when dementia patients hear music? Not a day goes by without a story on my news feed about someone playing music for dementia patients and raving about their success at engaging with the patient. 

When asked by caregivers what music to use with their patients I recommend that they make a file with recordings of music that was popular when the patient was a youth or young adult – say from the ages of 14 – 26. 

The results have been compelling. In one case after listening to the music (and singing along), the father recognized his son for the first time in 6 months and they conversed! 

Often a musician plays music live for the patients, and within moments of starting, some of the patients become alert and are mouthing the words to the songs. Afterward, they’re more responsive and even-tempered, and the benefits can last for hours. 

A more active approach is to engage the patients in music-making activities that are usually conducted by a music therapist. Many patients who have suffered cognitive losses can carry a conversation and love music; some are listless with little response to stimuli. Both groups can respond to music making, and generally, there is a measurable improvement in the quality of life. 

Volunteers who have trained with my online course, The Healer’s Visit, use music to make a dramatic difference. It takes sensitivity and a desire to serve, but the rewards are deep as you’ll share intimate moments with patients and contribute to their quality of life. 

I’ve played for patients who exhibit agitation or sundowner’s syndrome. In this situation, I use therapeutic music designed to reduce pain and anxiety – usually unfamiliar to the patient.  The patients have responded favorably with reduced agitation and going to dinner with less agitation or remaining peaceful for more extended periods. Appropriate recorded therapeutic music can also yield excellent results. 

The issue at many nursing homes is the soundscape has no design, and it’s random and often contains sound sources that can agitate a patient or elevate agitation in a sensitive patient. Televisions can be most offensive but are usually on all day as the easy baby sitter for these folks. 

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you know anyone who suffers cognitive impairment? Have you used music to reach them? How did they respond?  What type of music? 

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If you’d like more real-deal, practical resources about sound, music, and healing, then sign up for updates at I often email specials like free music, tips on how to create healing environments and referrals to essential resources for healing music, inspiration, and how to rest and re-set. I’ll see you next time. 

 James Schaller, CMP is a clinical musician and consultant who trains caregivers on how to use therapeutic music and consults with healthcare facilities to create soundscapes that benefit patients and staff.

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