The Art & Science of Sound -

Music As Memory Therapy

Got an old iPod, or some other gently used audio equipment that is in factory-operating condition laying around that you don’t use anymore? There are people who might benefit greatly by you removing it from that junk drawer in the kitchen and sending it their way. 

It’s almost a meaningless cliché at this point – and that’s not a good thing – but music is emotion. Music is the neurological translation of feelings into something tangible and shareable. Music makers are translators, and everyone involved in the creation or sharing of music is involved in the sharing and translation of emotion. Since the essence of being human is our ability to feel and intellectualize emotion, it stands to reason that music is a basic human necessity.

Current estimates place the number of Americans with some form of Alzheimer or dementia at 5.1 million, so it’s safe to say we’re all in this together. Like most other Americans, I have a relative with Alzheimer’s. I no longer can communicate with her as she no longer remembers who I am but there is still music. Frank Sinatra and the Big Bands bring about a peace and a calm and that ever-diminishing smile, but so do the Beach Boys and Curtis Mayfield. No singer am I, but every once in a while I’ll belt out a tune for her (a capella of course) and the connection is as strong as ever.

The music of her formative years or of my youth was no better than the music being made today, but the difference is the music of our youth ties us to our emotional pasts – our first loves, our first losses, the freedom of youth, the anxiety of being young. Emotion and memory are very closely tied together. Think about the first time you fell in love and now go find that song you remember about him or her. Play the song. See what I mean? “Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience,” says noted neurologist Oliver Sacks. “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory…it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

Musical experience (and aptitude) are often the last mental skills to disappear, so caregivers are increasingly depending on music to keep contact with persons suffering from advanced stages of dementia. Lyrics, when set to music, are retained more often than lyrics recited to patients and group singing brings about a reawakening of personality otherwise obscured by the disease. Dancing has also been shown to open up ambulatory patients to their caregivers – the dancing leads to very basic displays of affection like hand-holding, hugging and kissing, and those displays in turn open up some memories. None of this is a cure, but it is a way to stay in touch with someone you love for as long as possible. 

So, hold on to your music because it’s the key to your life in more ways than we can imagine, and share the joy of music with those you are afraid of losing touch with – regardless of the reason, but most especially those whose memories are fading away.

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