Several studies support the use of music therapy and other musical activities to help reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms. Different types of music interventions have been shown to affect different symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that negatively affects memory, learning, and behavior. According to the National Institute of Aging, more than 6 million U.S. adults have Alzheimer’s.

There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment typically involves taking several medications to reduce symptoms or slow down the progression of the disease. Some people may also benefit from alternative treatments like acupuncture and aromatherapy.

Research suggests that music also positively affects the health of people with Alzheimer’s disease. It may also help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in people at risk.

Whether under the guidance of a certified music therapist or as part of a group activity, music interventions can help reduce symptoms and improve life for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

Alzheimer’s vs. dementia

Dementia is a general term for severe cognitive decline.

Alzheimer’s is a specific disease and the most common cause of dementia.

Some of the studies mentioned in this article focus specifically on Alzheimer’s, while others may focus on dementia in general.

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Music therapy is an evidence-based approach that uses music to improve health outcomes. A qualified music therapist can create a custom program to help you or a loved one with physical, emotional, social, or cognitive needs.

According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy can help:

  • memory
  • expression and communication
  • stress management
  • pain relief
  • physical rehabilitation

Music therapy vs. other music interventions

Music therapy must involve a certified music therapist who can create an individualized plan for a patient or client. Research suggests that individualized plans are more effective than general plans.

Research also suggests that group musical interventions may also improve mental health and well-being, even if they aren’t led by a music therapist. But these interventions also require thought and planning.

Dr. Carol Beynon, professor emerita at Western University in London, Canada, notes that the success of such interventions often depends on thoughtful and informed leaders. “Key components include what music is being used, how it’s being used, and who’s doing the teaching,” comments Beynon.

Beynon researched the development and outcomes of the Intergenerational Choir Project, which joined people with dementia and their caregivers with high school students and their music teacher. The project was initiated by the local Alzheimer’s Society, which provided training for the teacher and students before their interactions.

“It should be a planned and sequential curriculum, not just a series of activities.” Beynon adds, “There needs to be a plan, but you also need to be flexible.”

Music interventions can be either active or passive. According to 2021 research, active and passive interventions engage different parts of the brain.

Active music interventions

Active music therapy or interventions engage you in creating music. Examples of active interventions include:

  • drum circles
  • group singing
  • playing a musical instrument
  • composing music

These activities often involve a movement component. If movement isn’t regularly a part of the musical activity, a music therapist or activity leader might add simple movements. Research from 2022 suggests that the element of movement may increase the therapeutic effect.

A 2021 study found that active interventions were better than passive interventions at improving cognition, behavior, and motor function in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Music listening interventions

Passive, or receptive, interventions involve listening to music. The goal is to have the music evoke an emotional response or stimulate memory.

A 2018 study found that passive interventions were better than active interventions at reducing anxiety, agitation, and behavior problems in people with dementia.

Can people with Alzheimer’s participate in music?

The Alzheimer’s Association notes that people in the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s can participate in and benefit from musical activities.

A 2022 research review states that people with Alzheimer’s can learn and remember new songs. It may be more challenging in the later stages, but they may still be able to tap or sing along to music.

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Beynon comments that singing in the Intergenerational Choir Project provided people with Alzheimer’s “spiritual and aesthetic support which in turn reinforces better health and well-being.” She notes that participants felt energized and showed reduced symptoms for 2 to 24 hours after each session.

Medical research seems to confirm Beynon’s observations that music interventions can help in the following ways.

Enhance memory

Music can help people with Alzheimer’s recall details from their life. Researchers call these music-evoked autobiographic memories, which can often be vivid and detailed. The effect is strongest with familiar music, but even unfamiliar music can have an effect.

Improve cognition

A 2023 review of studies from across three continents found that music therapy helped to improve cognitive functions in people with Alzheimer’s. The authors also noted that active interventions had more of an effect.

Reduce behavioral and psychological symptoms

Research suggests that some music interventions can help people with dementia reduce symptoms of:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • agitation
  • apathy

Singing and combined musical techniques were most effective. Results were mixed when listening to music or playing musical instruments.

Improve verbal fluency

Clinical trials have found that music therapy can improve language and verbal skills in people with dementia. Singing, songwriting, and reading lyrics to songs all helped to improve these skills. A 2018 trial noted the positive effect specifically in people with mild Alzheimer’s disease.

Enhance quality of life

A 2022 review of 26 studies found significant improvement in mental health-related quality of life among people with Alzheimer’s when music therapy was added to their standard treatment. The study authors also found mild improvement in physical health-related quality of life. But they cautioned against generalizations because there was a lot of variation in the results.

There isn’t one style or genre of music that helps everyone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. The AMTA notes that several styles can be helpful. A qualified music therapist will consider your or your loved one’s preferences, circumstances, and treatment goals when deciding which music to include as part of therapy.

Still, a 2017 review of clinical trials that used music therapy does reveal some preferences. Active interventions tend to involve music familiar to the person with Alzheimer’s. These could be songs from their culture, familiar classical tunes (like Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), or familiar popular music.

Beynon also thinks it’s good to include new music. “We used popular music primarily from the 1940s through to the 1990s to promote recollection as well as retrieval of memories, but also included choral music they were unlikely to know to promote new learning.”

Familiar songs explored in the Intergenerational Choir Project included:

  • “You’ll Never Walk Alone”
  • “Moon River”
  • “Over the Rainbow”
  • “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”
  • “Carol of the Bells”
  • a medley from “The Sound of Music”

When it came to music listening, clinical trials most often used Western classical music. Specific examples included:

  • Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448”
  • Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”
  • “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

Like most therapies, music therapy does come with some risks. Some people may experience increased anxiety from active participation in music.

Selecting the wrong music may also cause listening to yield negative results. Possible risks include:

  • overstimulation
  • anxiety or confusion
  • triggering negative memories

How to find a qualified music therapist

Music therapists hold a degree in music therapy from an accredited program. They can then take an exam to receive certification.

You can search for a qualified music therapist through the AMTA.

You can verify a music therapist’s certification through the Certification Board of Music Therapists.

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Research suggests that music interventions can positively affect the quality of life of some people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Individualized interventions led by a music therapist are typically more effective. But other interventions can also be successful with thoughtful planning and expert leadership.

Musical activities can be active or passive. Active interventions, which involve creating or reacting to music, may yield better results than passive interventions, which involve only listening to music.