Listening to and performing to music has long been intricately connected to a person’s mood. However, the correlation between memory and music seems to be less talked about. Music has a remarkable ability to evoke memories and is closely linked to the brain’s memory systems. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “music-memory connection” and has been widely studied by researchers and experts in fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and music therapy. The correlation between music and memory are fascinating and there are several aspects of this connection that are worth exploring:
Music has a unique way of triggering emotions, and when a piece of music is associated with an emotional event, it can enhance memory of that event. Emotions serve as a powerful cue for memory recall.
Music can become associated with specific times, places, or people. Hearing a song from the past can transport individuals back to the time and place where they first heard it, eliciting detailed memories. First dances at weddings, funerals, the soundtrack of a much-loved film, or our favourite childhood songs are all great examples of music that can recall detailed memories when we hear them. You might not remember every detail of the event, but you will remember how you felt at that time.
The hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory formation, is involved in processing music and its emotional content. Music can stimulate the hippocampus, leading to the encoding and retrieval of memories.
Emotion and memory centres
Emotionally charged music activates the amygdala, which interacts with the hippocampus, strengthening the encoding and retrieval of memories associated with the emotional content of music.
Alzheimers’ disease and dementia
As you may already know, dementia is general descriptive term for any progressive change in memory and thinking abilities. Alzheimers, on the other hand, is a specific disease that attacks the brain and causes symptoms like the ones people living with dementia experience. Alzheimer’s can be challenging to diagnose early – there is no one perfect test. It will often involve a series of memory tests, brain scans, blood tests, and input from family and friends who know the person well and who can vouch for what is ‘normal’ behaviour for that person and what is not.
Music therapy is often used with individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Even in advanced stages of these conditions, Dementia sufferers can respond to and remember songs from their past, providing a means of communication and enhancing their quality of life.
Professor Sebastian Crutch*, leading expert in dementia, explains how and why music therapy works in aiding memory recall for people living with dementia:
“There is a science for the person who is participating in music therapy. For instance, brain imaging studies show how many different circuits within the brain lights up when we hear music. Because music is so multi-sensory, it lights up memory circuits, memories of events that are perhaps attached to songs, but also parts of the brain that are quite well preserved in Alzheimer’s disease like our emotional circuits and our ability to sense rhythm, pitch, and things.
It also directs the mood of the person. Mood changes are very common with someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, they can be screaming one minute and calm the next. Music therapy can instantly calm, soothe or lift their mood which is another reason music is such a great tool for the caregivers of anyone suffering with memory and behavioural challenges.”
Music with a strong beat or rhythm can help individuals with cognitive impairments maintain a sense of temporal order, aiding them in activities of daily living.
Learning and mnemonic devices
Music is often used as a mnemonic device to aid learning. Setting information to music, such as a melody or rhythm, can make it easier for people, especially children, to remember facts and concepts.
Repetition and melody
Repetitive elements in music, as well as catchy melodies, can enhance memory retention. This is why many educational tools use musical patterns to facilitate learning and memory. The Alphabet song is probably the most obvious example of this, and for any keen scientists, you’ll probably remember learning some kind of song to help remember the elements of the periodic table!
Certain pieces of music become closely tied to specific life events or periods. These songs can serve as triggers, instantly bringing back memories and associated emotions from the past.
Listening to music from one’s youth can evoke feelings of nostalgia, bringing back memories from adolescence and early adulthood.
One of our dementia residents at the Future Care Group is a lifelong Liverpool fan. Despite not being able to remember this, if we play Liverpool FC’s football anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ he immediately smiles and sings along.
Music therapy at the Future Care Group
As professional care providers specialising in dementia care, music therapy plays a vital role in the lives of residents under our care.
We get to know our residents inside and out, so we know how a resident has lived their life prior to joining our Future Care Group family. This not only helps residents settle happily and quickly, but it also helps us understand why they might exhibit certain behaviours and determine how best to manage them and make residents feel safe and at ease as quickly as possible.
With many types of dementia, the long-term memory remains but the short-term memory doesn’t function as well (if at all). Therefore, the more detail we understand about what a resident is like and what their whole life has been like before coming to us, the more we can help them and support them in the here and now. Musical therapy is an integral part of our dementia strategy across homes within the Future Care Group.
Sue Roberts, Head of Quality and Compliance and Senior Risk Manager at the Future Care Group adds:
“Some people with dementia cannot communicate with you at all or recall what they ate for breakfast. However, put their favourite song on and they will often sing along happily to it.
A recent example of this happened recently at our Croydon home, where we care for a lot of residents with quite advanced dementia and expressed behaviours. Sometimes, a large group of residents expressing behaviours in close vicinity can escalate a reactive response. On this occasion, one resident was being very expressive, which was causing other residents to react quite negatively, creating a challenge to the staff as well. Once we found out he loved reggae music, we were able to instantly calm him.
Now we know that, when this gentleman becomes agitated or stressed for no known reason and we need to calm things down, we can pop some headphones on him and play all the Bob Marley music and other artists we have downloaded for him! It has inspired our care team to create a playlist for every resident. A playlist of their life. Music help people identify with the here and now and bringing them comfortably into the moment and identify themselves.”
Here is a selection of the musical events enjoyed by residents in recent months:
In essence, music has a unique way of accessing and activating different regions of the brain, making it a potent tool for enhancing memory, evoking emotions, and improving overall cognitive function. Whether used therapeutically, educationally, or simply for personal enjoyment, music plays a significant role in the way we remember and connect with our past experiences. For people living with dementia and Alzheimers, music can be key to bringing someone into the moment, calming them, shifting their mood, and making them feel safe and comfortable. Music therapy is a useful tool not just for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, but for the family, friends and professionals caring for them.
Book a visit to one of our homes today and see first-hand, why our award-winning expert care team are so loved by residents.
*Comments taken from interview with Professor Steven Crutch on ITV’s This Morning programme, September 2023.