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Music Therapy and Dementia Disorders

By Ashlyn Smith

Many call music a universal language; those of all ages, genders, and backgrounds can find enjoyment in this medium. Recently, it has been shown that music can do more than just entertain–music can heal.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy, the clinical use of music-related activities to improve individual cognition and health, has gained popularity in the last several years. This form of therapy has been used for several health issues, such as in supporting veterans experiencing PTSD,

assisting those healing from trauma, and easing the burden of those who experience chronic pain. The more that researchers explore music therapy, the better they understand the relationship between music and the mind, and the better they are able to expand on how this form of therapy impacts emotional, physical, and cognitive problems.

One class of issues that music therapy can assist with is dementia disorders.

What is Dementia?

Dementia affects about five million adults over the age of sixty-five, and is an umbrella term that encompasses a weakened ability to remember, retain, and utilize the information that helps individuals go about their day-to-day lives.

As said by Laurie Graham, a novelist and dementia caregiver:

None of us want to be reminded that dementia is random, relentless, and frighteningly common

Dementia is an issue that is devastating for both the individual and the family of those suffering. Research for improving the well-being of those that suffer from this type of disorder is ongoing, and many have turned to music-based therapies for answers.

How can we help our loved ones dealing with dementia?

Recent research suggests that music-based therapy could do numbers in helping those who suffer from dementia-related diseases by engaging them in mental exercise. A study done by Alvarez (2022) examined how individuals with dementia are influenced by Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT). Researchers used vocal and breathing exercises to engage the speech and language of those studied and also attempted to immerse those with dementia in songs that may have an element of familiarity to them, hoping to exercise their recall abilities.

They found that the use of NMT positively impacted both the mood and cognition of those dealing with dementia. Another study also achieved similar results with a form of NMT, finding that their dementia patients' general well-being increased by 48% and sociability rose by 32%. Studies like these showcase the impressive impact that music-based activities can have on our minds–by using music as a recall and activity-promoting technique for those with dementia on a more personal scale, individuals may be able to help their own relatives become more engaged in their lives. Working to help those that we know personally that are affected by dementia may seem like a daunting task, but by looking deeper into work that already exists, individuals can attempt to help loved ones on a smaller scale.

Music therapy also positively impacts the symptoms of those suffering from various, more specific dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer's. Svansdottir & Snaedal (2006) completed a study where Alzheimer’s patients were enrolled in an eighteen-session music therapy course in order to study its possible cognitive effects. Activity disturbances, such as aggression and paranoia, were significantly reduced at the end of the period for those who had undergone music therapy. This therapy was heavily centered around singing songs that the elderly participants were familiar with. Svansdottir and Snaedal (2006) also found that this positive impact decreased after the therapy was no longer being implemented, suggesting that continued exposure to music-related therapy is key to extending positive results.

One may argue that this makes music therapy difficult to upkeep–consistent effort is necessary to bring about change, rather than simply a one-time implementation. However, the researchers explained that one cause of activity disturbances is a lack of meaningful activities present in patrons' lives. Re-introducing singing to these individuals not only exercised their minds but also gave them a sense of purpose. If this is the case, one might suggest various forms of art and music recreation to combat these symptoms and to provide more substantial opportunities for those living with Alzheimer's and other dementia related diseases.

Understanding how rigorous forms of music therapy can help dementia patients is just the beginning of helping our loved ones. Dr. Concetta Tomaino, director of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function, explained in an interview that individuals can institute lower levels of music therapy with family members in order to help improve recognition and association. Many dementia patients recognize familiar songs and connect them to specific experiences, and singing these songs with loved ones may help them to connect with their pasts. Dr. Tomaino explained, “The music that we love, that we hold attachments for and hold memories of, becomes deeply embedded in subcortical networks in our brain”. This embeddedness may aid individuals with dementia disorders in expressing themselves and regulating their mood; music can calm individuals, it can help to increase activity, and can bring back old emotions and memories.

The nature of dementia disorders is frightening, but taking action may help to improve the conditions of those living with these problems. Music therapy has been shown to have impressive cognitive and emotional effects on those living with dementia, especially in elderly demographics. Future research in this area might include further experimentation in how diverse forms of music impact individuals differently, or whether this form of therapy expands to memory issues apart from neurodegenerative problems like dementia. Overall, by understanding the options that are available for dementia patients, individuals are better equipped to help those in their sphere of influence.


Chan, N. (2022, February 25). Concetta Tomaino: Healing the Brain and Body With Music. Being Patient.

Madsø, K. G., Molde, H., Hynninen, K. M., & Nordhus, I. H. (2021). Observing music therapy in dementia: Repeated single-case studies assessing well-being and sociable interaction. Clinical Gerontologist, 45(4), 968–982.

Music Therapy: What Is It, Types & Treatment. (2022). Cleveland Clinic.

Prieto Álvarez, L. (2022). Neurologic music therapy with a habilitative approach for older adults with dementia: A feasibility study. Music Therapy Perspectives, 40(1), 76–83.

Svansdottir, H. B., & Snaedal, J. (2006). Music therapy in moderate and severe dementia of Alzheimer’s type: a case–control study. International Psychogeriatrics, 18(4), 613–621.

What Is Dementia? | CDC. (n.d.).

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