How Music Therapy Positively Impacts the Brain of Someone Living with Alzheimer’s

It is never easy when a loved one is living with or has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. However, families may find comfort in therapies that are specifically geared towards Alzheimer’s and dementia to reduce anxiety and promote an active mind. One activity is music therapy, which has been shown to provide numerous benefits to those suffering from memory-impairing illnesses.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is a clinical and evidence-based practice that uses music to help someone living with Alzheimer’s reach their goals. Initially, a certified health professional will go through an evaluation and create a plan that addresses the specific needs of an individual. Types of music therapies include the use of singing, clapping, dancing, playing instruments while actively listening to music. The motivation behind a specific plan for each individual is to have them use tools they gain from listening to music in every aspect of their life. Within music therapy, a certified clinical trainer will utilize both active and passive listening to ensure an individual is effectively reaching their goals.

music therapy

Types of Music Therapy: Active vs Passive Listening

There are two forms of listening that may occur when using music as a form of therapy for those living with Alzheimer’s:

  • Active Listening: Active listening occurs when someone is only listening to music and there is no other task at hand. Behaviors that indicate someone with Alzheimer’s is actively listening include dancing, singing and clapping along with the music.
  • Passive Listening: Passive listening refers to the static act of listening to music when it is on in the background. While passive listening may not elicit the same behaviors or reactions as active listening, it still has many benefits to a person with Alzheimer’s.

Active and passive listening differ in whether the individual is engaging with the music the way it was intended or if they are simply listening to it in the background. Both forms of listening elicit completely different responses and are to be used based on an individual’s needs. Music isn’t simply an activity of distraction; it is something that creates an emotional experience for those listening.

The Biological Case for Music Therapy

How the Brain Processes Music

The brain is divided up into three major areas: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. Each area is interconnected, playing a vital role in an individual’s day-to-day life. The connection between each area of the brain ensures they function successfully, and a lack of function is how a problem is identified.

The cerebrum is the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and how an individual processes emotion. It makes up 75% of our brain and is divided into the right and left hemispheres. Given that the cerebrum is responsible for the major processes that dictate our memory and emotional functions, there are many pieces of it to consider.

  • Cerebral Cortex: responsible for driving our memory, attention, perception, and consciousness.
  • Medial Temporal Lobe: this is how our brain understands how memories function.
  • Limbic System: controls the emotional response to music and is home to the hippocampus, hypothalamus, mammillary bodies, and many other vital pieces.
  • Hippocampus: the part of our brain that processes memory function and changes short term memories into long term memories. It has the ability to grow new neurons, which our brain can not do in every part.
  • Basal Ganglia System: responsible for the formation and retrieval of memories.
brain diagram

Music and the Alzheimer’s Brain

The reason why music therapy is very successful for individuals living with Alzheimer’s is the impact it has on the parts of the brain that have been affected by the disease. When a piece of music is played, the auditory cortex, cerebrum, cerebellum, and limbic system create a chemical reaction that fires up neurons to stimulate the brain. Each of these parts has a different reaction to music and a role in listening. The connection between the brain and this therapy is why someone who is living with Alzheimer’s is going to benefit.

Since the cerebrum is important in recalling memories, someone with Alzheimer’s may begin to remember specific music lyrics or even visual a particular memory associated with a song when it is activated. The other piece of the brain, the cerebellum is then activated to help an individual with their skeletal muscle movement. Enabling an individual to recall their passion for playing a piano, guitar, or ballroom dance is a life-changing moment.

The science behind the brain and how each part works together to create a chemical response to music is what explains the impact of music therapy.

Observing the Power of Music Therapy

A variety of methods can be employed to engage an individual with music and help them recall joyous moments in their life. One example is curating a playlist with songs from memorable moments over the years, such as the song they danced to at their wedding, theme songs from their favorite shows, or songs their children grew up singing with them. These are impactful examples where a few words or a tune could actively engage their emotions.

music therapy

Aside from working to lower stress levels and anxiety, there are many other reasons one should enroll in music therapy. It is proven that if you give someone a crafted playlist full of their favorite records, you will see them cognitively react. Those who are living with Alzheimer’s can find themselves with loss of vocal ability, motor skills, and responsiveness, but music pulls them out of that state and can allow them to verbally communicate more than they have in weeks.  Music awakens emotions within people, and it can bring about positive memories. As safety and comfort grow within someone with Alzheimer’s, they begin to feel confident in themselves again. A particular record, song, or melody could bring them back to that safe place and open their mind up to start singing, dancing, and expressing physical closeness.

The response to music therapy is not black and white- it impacts every person differently. Each individual is at a different place with their disease, and the way emotions are expressed could look very different every session. Respecting the plan that a licensed professional has created is going to make a huge difference with an individual.

This blog post is an overview of how music positively impacts those who are living with Alzheimer’s. The connection between music and Alzheimer’s is undeniable. If your loved one is living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, please visit