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Listening to Loved Songs on Repeat May Help People With Dementia

A white older adult female listening to music with white headphones.

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Key Takeaways

  • According to a recent pilot study, regularly listening to music that is familiar and meaningful created changes in both the structure and function of the brains of people with mild cognitive impairment.
  • The participants had improvements in their memory and changes in the neural pathways of their brain’s prefrontal cortex (where cognitive processes occur).
  • The study was done with both musicians and non-musicians. While all of the people improved on memory function on tests, the musicians showed some slight differences in brain changes compared to non-musicians.

A recent pilot study found that repeatedly listening to familiar music can help people with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease. The study used music that participants had known for a long time and that was important to them. Repeatedly hearing the songs produced changes in mental function and structures within the brain.

The research was preliminary and involved just 14 participants—six of whom were professional musicians. Still, the findings add a growing body of evidence that exposure to familiar and loved music may benefit people with dementia.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Toronto and Unity Health Toronto, was led by Michael Thaut, PhD, a professor on both the Faculty of Music and Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and the director of the Music and Health Research Collaboratory.

Vijay Ramanan, MD, PhD

Music used in this way could perhaps even slow decline in the setting of brain diseases that impact cognition.

— Vijay Ramanan, MD, PhD

“The biggest surprise was that we saw some changes in the brain that we did not necessarily expect. It is very difficult to show positive changes in the brain of people with dementia,” Thaut told Verywell. The changes were in the neural pathways of the brain in areas that correlate with memory performance on neurological testing.  

The most important feature of the music used in the study was its relevance to the individual participants, he noted. Each person was listening to music that they knew and loved and that was an important memory for them.

“It’s an interesting study. There’s a growing section of literature on the potential influence of engagement in music, as well as other areas of the arts as avenues to promoting cognitive benefit,” Vijay Ramanan, MD, PhD, a senior associate consultant and an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology and Division of Behavioral Neurology at the Mayo Clinic who was not involved in the study, told Verywell. “Music used in this way could perhaps even slow decline in the setting of brain diseases that impact cognition.”

Benefits of Music

Previous research has shown that listening to music may improve mood and anxiety in patients with mild dementia or early Alzheimer’s. Whether music could help with brain functioning has not been clear.

Michael Thaut, PhD

The biggest surprise was that we saw some changes in the brain that we did not necessarily expect.

— Michael Thaut, PhD

To test this, the research team created a pilot study to look at the effects of the songs and melodies that are very familiar and important to the listener, which they called autobiographically salient music. They recruited patients from the St. Michael’s Hospital Memory Disorders Clinic, which is a home for professional musicians and artists.

Fourteen participants completed the study. Of these, six were musicians (defined as having been professional musicians and/or having had formal music training). The participants were interviewed and asked to identify the instrumental or vocal music they had known for at least 20 years and that had special meaning to them.

A one-hour-long individualized playlist was created for each participant. The different playlists contained pieces from many different genres of music, with both groups selecting more vocal music than instrumental music.

The participants were asked to listen to their playlist for an hour every day for three weeks and to focus on the music while they listened. The participants’ caregivers could also participate in the listening sessions.

Before and after the three-week study period, the participants’ cognitive function was tested and they underwent a functional MRI brain scan, during which they were asked to listen to short clips of both the familiar music and clips of new music that matched the style of the music they knew.

There’s a growing section of literature on the potential influence of engagement in music, as well as other areas of the arts as avenues to promoting cognitive benefit.

After the study, the participants’ cognitive tests showed significant improvement in memory scores. The authors noted that listening to long-familiar music has a “generally beneficial impact” on patients.

Some of the brain scans showed changes in the white matter sections of the brain. Changes in the brains of the musicians were smaller than those seen in the non-musicians, which Ramanan said could suggest that musicians already have a more efficient memory network for music than do non-musicians.

More Research Needed

The preliminary pilot study only included 14 participants and Thaut said that larger studies need to be done to confirm their findings. He also said that future research “should also probably look at memory and pictures or videos to see if they have a similar effect.”

“I think music—and perhaps even engagement in the arts more broadly—can have multiple different avenues towards potential benefits in Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia,” Ramanan said.

What This Means For You

A small pilot study showed that regularly listening to familiar, loved music might have brain benefits for people with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease.

Even though the study was small, it demonstrates that music holds promise as a way to improve the lives of people with mild forms of dementia, even if they were never professional musicians.

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  1. Fischer CE, Churchill N, Leggieri M, et al. Long-known music exposure effects on brain imaging and cognition in early-stage cognitive decline: a pilot studyJ Alzheimers Dis. 2021;84(2):819-833. doi:10.3233/JAD-210610