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.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that negatively affects memory, learning, and behavior. According to the National Institute of Aging, more than
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Music can help people with Alzheimer’s recall details from their life.
Reduce behavioral and psychological symptoms
Singing and combined musical techniques were most effective. Results were mixed when listening to music or playing musical instruments.
Improve verbal fluency
Enhance quality of life
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.
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:
- anxiety or confusion
- triggering negative memories
How to find a qualified music therapist
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.