What is music therapy for seniors

What Is Music Therapy and How Can It Help People with Alzheimer’s?

Music therapy can improve the quality of life for elder patients, especially those suffering from degenerative diseases, like Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. But, what is music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients and how can it help seniors?

A study on the effect of music therapy that was conducted at the University of Miami School of Medicine reported that the benefits of music therapy include increased secretion levels of our “feel-good” brain chemicals, including serotonins, prolactin, norepinephrine, melatonin, and norepinephrine, especially in Alzheimer’s patients.

But, the results are actually manifold. Music therapy can reduce stress and anxiety, help to ease depression, and encourage positive social interactions. It can even improve motor function and cognition in older adults. That’s because even as diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s progress, and cognitive function tends to decline, the human brain will still respond to music – it is an innate ability we, as humans, have. Best of all, the benefits have been shown to continue long after the music stops.

The trick is to find music that resonates with your aging relative. If they are able to communicate, ask them about their favorite compositions and artists from their youth and then start incorporating music into their daily routines. After all, if using music therapeutically for depression and anxiety can help ease your loved one’s anxieties and improve their quality of life, surely it has to be worth trying?

In this article, we are going to explore:

Music Therapy Facts

Much research has been conducted on the benefits of music therapy for the elderly. Here are a few quick facts:

  • A study at UC Irvine found that Alzheimer’s patients improved their scores on memory tests when they listened to classical music.
  • Adults between the ages of 60 – 85 who do not have prior musical experience have shown an improvement in the speed at which they process and remember, after only three months of weekly piano lessons.
  • The neural and cognitive benefits of music continue throughout our lives and can help to counteract certain effects of aging, including hearing difficulties and memory loss in seniors.
  • Participating in music therapy programs has a positive effect on the physical and mental health of older adults, as well as their social functioning.

These are just some of the amazing music therapy facts and studies that have been conducted in relation to the effect of music therapy. We are mostly interested in the effects music has on senior citizens, especially those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

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What is Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease?

Certainly, music therapy for older adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease can differ significantly from person to person. In fact, it is the desired effect of the therapy that changes as circumstances change.

For instance, someone suffering from a physical injury, like a broken leg, may find music therapy to be soothing and healing, and aid in a quicker recovery through a music therapy technique called gait training, which uses music to motivate patients and assists with their movement.

Someone who experiences chronic pain, on the other hand, might derive welcome relief from their pain through the benefits of music therapy.

Overall, a therapist will design a tailored care plan based on the individual’s needs. As for patients who have Alzheimer’s and dementia, music can help them reduce depression, enhance memory, and improve social interaction.

Music therapists are professionals with university educations and certifications. They study the field and publish their findings to ensure patients receive the best music therapy care.

According to the American Music Therapy Association,[I] music therapy is an evidence-based, as well as clinical-based, use of music intervention that is used to reach a range of individualized goals within a therapeutic setting with a professional music therapist. The Association stresses that music therapy can:

  • Alleviate pain
  • Promote a sense of well-being
  • Manage stress
  • Enhance memory
  • Express feelings – be they happy, sad, angry, or joyous
  • Promote positive physical rehabilitation
  • Improve communication and social interaction
  • Enhance memory
  • Reduce depression
  • Promote motor functioning


While music therapy technically requires a board-certified music therapist who is able to assess the client’s needs and then create a treatment plan and implement music intervention based on those individual needs.

If you are not able to have a therapist, you can create unique music programs for the older adult in your care – especially if you know exactly what kind of music they enjoy and the kind of music that will promote calm, joy, and happy memories.

One of the important elements of music therapy for Alzheimer’s is that it can invoke incredible associations in older adults. That really is the magic of music – it has a unique ability to evoke emotions and memories from many years ago.

The key is to select music from the senior person’s teens to mid-20’s. Pick their favored musical styles and songs that will elicit an engaged and favorable response.

If your loved one is still fairly mobile, you could try taking them out dancing or even attend a concert. Alternatively, hire or buy a karaoke machine and sing along together to all those favorite tunes in the comfort of their home.

If you notice that a certain kind of music results in your relative exhibiting signs of distress, do not play that music again – it could well be associated with an upsetting memory.


Music as a Wondrous Tool

Music really is extremely versatile. It can also be used to foster a certain mood or mindset. For example, faster-paced music might encourage your loved on to dance, sway, tap their toes, and clap their hands.

However, slower-paced music tends to have a sedative effect that will calm and soothe – especially good for patients who get agitated by their surroundings and situation.

In the right setting, and along with daily activities, the perfect background tunes can help to guide responses and behaviors.

Since the effect of music is far-reaching, even unfamiliar music can be played to seniors and it will also play a vital role. New songs can help to develop beneficial responses, like cognitive stimulation and stress management, or even to encourage sleep.

Music can also be used during physical therapy and exercise sessions to promote the senior’s concentration and sense of balance.

When older adults who are in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia grow overwhelmed and frustrated by their inability to communicate, as well as growing agitated with their environment, music can be a valuable tool.

Soothing, gentle music helps to calm their aggravation and refocus their unfavorable behavior into a more positive energy or behavior.

Even during the later stages of the disease, when most human interaction has ceased, the elderly can still connect with music. Listening to music with your loved one creates wonderful opportunities for connection.

By incorporating music into your elderly loved one’s life, you can help him or her experience less agitation and anxiety, and connect with those around them.

While we are going to explore the benefits of music therapy in-depth in the next section, it is worth noting that music therapy, overall, can help to improve and maintain some senior’s health. It can help seniors with issues such as:

  • Speech skills

    studies have shown that music therapy can help seniors make decisions, answer questions, and, in some instances, even speak more clearly.

    Therapy with music can also help slow down the deterioration of speech and language skills in patients who have dementia. In fact, even when patients with Alzheimer’s lose their ability to form speech, they are still able to recognize their favorite songs and may even sing or hum along.

    Melodic Intonation Therapy is a music therapy technique used to help stroke victims and those with communication disorders caused by brain damage to regain speech.

  • Cognitive abilities – while music therapy for depression and anxiety is extremely important, the therapy can also help older adults process their thoughts and even maintain their memories.

    Most of us do associate certain songs with certain events, times, and places, and even just hearing a song can evoke a memory – be it positive or negative – even after many years have passed.

    For Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, music from their youth, particularly their childhood, has proven to be effective in eliciting involvement and a favorable response, even when that older person can no longer communicate effectively. Music therapy can be used to provide cognitive stimulation through techniques such as music games, learning a new instrument or song, and music and movement exercises.

  • Physical skills – who doesn’t enjoy moving along to music? The same can be said for seniors. With music comes dancing and instrument playing, which promotes coordination in older adults and can assist with endurance and even simple walking.

    Even if your senior relative is not mobile, music can still inspire them to clap and tap, getting the blood flowing and inducing those “feel-good” hormones.

  • Stress reduction – there are many caregivers who battle with effectively managing their aging relative’s agitation and stress levels. The benefits of music therapy extend to helping your loved one relax and also helps to ease aggressive behaviors.

    Slower songs, such as lullabies and ballads, can help to prepare him or her for bedtime or even help deal with changes to their routine that could cause upset and distress.

  • Social skills – seniors can always benefit from increased social interaction whether it is with other seniors or even their caregivers, and music therapy can help.

    Therapy with music encourages bonding with other people which in turn helps to alleviate feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

The Health Benefits of Music Therapy

In this section, we are going to take a more in-depth look at the effects of music therapy on an older adult’s health.

  1. Music Therapy for Stimulation

According to an article that was published in the Southern Medical Journal, while there are, of course, wide variations in individual musical preferences, music has been shown to have direct physiological effects on the autonomic nervous system.

In fact, according to the article, music can elicit immediate emotional and motor responses, especially when we combine it with movement and the stimulation of different sensory pathways.

When we also include instruments, both tactile and auditory stimulation can help promote cognitive and physical stimulation.

Today, music is widely used as a natural therapy for a variety of different diseases and has even shown great benefits for people who are severely cognitively or physically impaired, such as geriatric seniors who are in the late stages of a chronic illness, and those who suffer from severe obsessive-compulsive disorders and anxiety.

Unsurprisingly, studies have also found that the effect of music therapy has the most benefits when combined with some other practices, including speech therapy, physical exercise, psychological counseling, occupational therapy, social support, and improved nutrition.

  1. Music Therapy for Depression and Anxiety

Music therapy comes highly recommended for geriatric care because of the way in which it aids the improvement of intellectual, psychological, social, and cognitive performance in our elderly loved ones.

Feeling bored, depressed, isolated, and anxious over procedures, along with fatigue, are regularly complained about among older adults.

Both passive and active music therapy can help to improve their mood, sense of comfort, and promote relaxation, even going so far as to modify caregiver behavior.

Music therapy sessions have reported a positive effect when conducted before an anxiety-provoking activity or procedure, or for elderly adults who are admitted to intensive care units.

For the senior’s caregivers, music is an enjoyable and cost-effective way of improving compassion, empathy, and even promoting relationship-centered care.

  1. Music Therapy Aids Healing in the Elderly

One of the incredible ways that music therapy is being used in certain settings is to improve healing and reduce anxiety in older adults prior to undergoing tests or procedures. Studies have shown that music therapy can successfully lower anxiety in seniors who undergo cardiac procedures and it also helps those who have undergone surgery or invasive diagnostic procedures to relax.

It has been suggested that music can also positively modify the release of stress hormones, and this can be beneficial for respiratory, neurological, cardiac, and even the immune functions that are involved in healing.

  1. Music Therapy Helps Manage Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Both clinical studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, has shown that music therapy can improve the quality of life in older adults suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.

A report in the World Journal of Psychiatry stated that 20 – 50 percent of patients with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke suffer from depression, too.

What studies have found is that music therapy provides an uplifting form of therapy for such patients and in turn helps them to cope with degeneration of their symptoms. What’s more, the music stimulates their senses.

In another study conducted by the American Psychosomatic Society, it was found that music therapy has several positive effects when it comes to improving symptoms in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

It helps to address things such as depression, disability, and sensory loss. According to research, music behaves as a stimulus to promote emotional and motor responses by combining both stimulation and movement of various sensory pathways.

 One study involved 32 patients who had Parkinson’s being split into two groups: a control group and a music therapy group. The study was conducted over three months and comprised weekly sessions of music therapy along with physical therapy.

The physical therapy was used to encourage stretching, work on motor skills, and various strategies to improve balance. The music therapy sessions consisted of group signings, free and rhythmic body movements, voice exercises, and also active music activities.

Once the three months came to an end, it was found that the group who enjoyed music therapy showed significant improvement compared to the control group. The effect of music therapy was seen in the participant’s motor skills, emotional functions, and even activities in their daily lives.

  1. Music Therapy Can Reduce Symptoms of Certain Psychological Disorders

In a recent South Korean study, a group music therapy program was created for the duration of 12-weeks. It was found that the program was an effective intervention for improving certain psychiatric symptoms in older adults with mental illnesses.

  • Music Therapy Can Improve Communication and Self-Expression
  • Music therapy has, for a long time, been used to help those patients who have mental and physical limitations and who struggle with self-expression – similar to individuals who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. For these patients, music therapy has been used to help them process and express emotions, verbally, and non-verbally.

    This can be achieved through activities such as humming or singing, music, and movement, instrument playing, verbal expression in response to the music, creating a “life soundtrack”, or simple songwriting.

    How to Implement Music Therapeutically

    Music therapy can be effective for people with Alzheimer’s at any stage of the disease. When possible, taking part in individual or group music therapy sessions led by a board-certified music therapist is ideal.

    If this is not possible, music can still be used therapeutically with the help of friends, family, and caregivers. Following, are suggestions on how music can be used at each stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

    The Early Stages

    During the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, your aging loved one may still be mobile and vocal. If you can, take them out dancing or encourage them to move around the house.

    Be sure to listen to music that he or she enjoyed during their younger years, whether it is salsa, swing, Sinatra or even pop. It’s important to take note of how the music makes your loved one react – if they say a song sounds awful, turn it off and avoid distressing them.

    You can also try to experiment with different kinds of venues and concerts, depending on your relative’s temperament and anxiety levels. Encourage them to play an instrument too, if they are able to do so, and compile a musical history of their favorite songs.

    The Early to Middle Stages

    During this stage, you can make use of song sheets or even a karaoke machine to allow your older relative to singing along to their favorite tunes.

    The Middle Stage

    During the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, play music and sing along as your loved one is walking and working on improving their gait and balance. Background music can encourage them to move around and it can help improve their mood. During this time, stimulating music is the best option – songs that are familiar, rhythmic, and motivating for your loved one. Using calming music can help redirect and reduce behavior problems and anxiety.

    The Late Stages

    During the latter stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia, use the music collection of old favorites that you created during the earlier stages. Keep singing along to tunes they know well from their youth and alternate those with soothing melodies to provide comfort.

    You can also play exercise music during the late stages and even do a little drumming. Now is a great time to use facial expressions to communicate your feeling and encourage your loved one to communicate non-verbally, too.

    The Effects of “Music & Memory” Program on Seniors with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

    Music for Henry

    Have you seen the YouTube video, Alive Inside? [II] In the video, a social worker gives an iPod to an elderly resident in a nursing home and plays music through the headphones.

    Viewers then witness the true power of music. Henry, the elderly resident, comes alive as music from his younger years fills his ears. As he awakens, he begins to lift his head, open his eyes, and we see how his face lights up and he begins to talk about the music. Henry goes on to reminisce and tell viewers what music truly means to him.

    The video is actually a short clip from Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary that follows a social worker, Dan Cohen, who is also executive director of Music & Memory. Cohen’s mission is to improve elderly people’s quality of life through personalized music.

    The iPod Project consists of iPods loaded with senior patient’s favorite tunes. The aim of the project is to support personalized music programs for older adults and raise public awareness about the many benefits of using music therapeutically.

    The program has proved effective in helping individuals connect and engage socially, deepen relationships, reminisce, improve mood, decrease agitation, and with redirecting difficult behavior.

    What Cohen has found, and you can see it during the video clip, is that people with memory loss seem to wake up their memory when they listen to music that they have an emotional attachment to.

    What happens is that music imprints itself on our brain deeper than another other experience, evoking emotion and therefore memories.

    According to the executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function [III], Connie Tomaino, music acts as a vital bridge to connection patients who have Alzheimer’s and dementia to themselves, their personal history, and their loved ones.

    Making use of music for such patients has actually been happening since the 1940s. But, what is new, is how readily accessible music now is for our aging loved ones, thanks to iPods, MP3 players, and other technology.

    The sheer power of music and its inherent abilities to enliven, animate, and significantly stimulate are the basis of music therapy for Alzheimer’s.

     What’s more, if you decide to use a professional music therapist combined with readily accessible music for your relative, this will make for a powerful mixture. Thanks to such progress, senior citizens who are confused and withdrawn as a result of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, can now participate actively in music therapy sessions.

    Another amazing benefit of music therapy is that music demands a type of reality-oriented behavior in the now, but there is no risk of failure. That means that even highly cognitively impaired seniors can master musical abilities while enhancing their self-respect.

    Tomaino has commented that Henry’s sensational response to music in the documentary demonstrates just how dramatic the right choice of music can be. But, watch carefully and you will notice that it is not until someone off-camera speaks to Henry that we hear just how much music means to him.

    We have already discussed how positive music can be in an older adult’s life. If we can awaken our aging relatives just by allowing them to listen to their all-time favorite music, just imagine how well they will respond in professional group sessions on a regular basis.

    Music therapy can truly take their responses in the moment to a whole new level of improved awareness, attention, connection to other people, improved memory, and better social interaction.

    A Music Session with Jane

    Take Jane as an example. Jane is a quiet lady who is nonverbal but happy enough to observe during group programs. Jane has advanced Alzheimer’s disease and she is no longer able to recognize the time, places, or loved ones. Sometimes Jane is withdrawn and tearful.

    Jane’s family know that she loves the old Irish-American songs, like the well-known When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. Jane grew up in England before moving to the United States in her early teens.

    A music therapist worked with Jane in a group setting and found she mostly responded to two songs, An Irish Lullaby and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.

    Noticing the positive responses told the music therapist that Jane had a special connection to the songs compared to others in the same category.

    Working one-on-one with Jane, the therapist played the two songs, both live on a piano and on recordings, to engage Jane’s responses even further. Remember, Jane had been nonverbal up to this point. With each private session, Jane began to open her mouth like she was trying to sing along. Sometimes she would speak a few random words.

    The music therapist would then pause the song when Jane spoke to see if Jane was trying to communicate something particular about the song. The more the therapist analyzed Jane’s verbalizations, the more she realized that Jane was talking about an apartment, her family, and even a house number.

    Some of the images seemed to be towns in Ireland, as opposed to England. When the therapist talked to Jane’s family about this, they mentioned that Jane had spent her early days in Ireland. The family had actually forgotten this information as they thought it was just too long ago to count.

    What Jane was verbally expressing was fleeting images, so the therapist continued to play and pause the music to allow Jane to respond to the music. Jane’s family also continued to play the songs at home and encourage Jane to reminisce. Without this ongoing engagement, the verbalizations and interaction with Jane would never have happened.

    Responding in the Moment

    Responding in the moment, as Henry and Jane do, is merely scratching the surface. It’s just a quick reaction to the familiar. But, by engaging elderly patients in their responses to music therapy, there are massive therapeutic benefits to be had.


    When it comes to music therapy for Alzheimer’s, the more music the better! Making sure that our aging loved ones have access to their favorite music is a wonderful way to help them interact, keep moving, and stimulates them in a range of different ways. Soothing music can help to calm anxious and even depressed loved ones and help to lull them to sleep.

    The benefits of music therapy are immense, and by increasing access to this kind of therapy can aid in the recovery of an illness or lessen the impact of a disabling condition – a goal we should all strive towards for our deteriorating relatives.

    If you can use music therapy services, the way Jane and Henry’s family did, it will likely have a positive impact on many levels. Even if this is not possible, you can still use music therapeutically with your loved one. Engage your loved one while they can still communicate to find out what their favorite songs are and start compiling playlists for different stages of their dementia or Alzheimer’s.

    You may just be surprised at how responsive they become during the later, difficult stages of the disease.


    [I]   https://www.musictherapy.org/
    [II]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKDXuCE7LeQ
    [III] http://musictherapy.imnf.org/tpl/results/b2edb0971a6a0ed60b3fe1fcd8f75709/