How Music Therapy Can Benefit Alzheimer's Patients

Do you have a loved one with Alzheimer's or another kind of dementia? If so, you may be interested to know that music might be able to connect you with your family member in a way that words cannot.

Woman listening to music on headphones
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Many research studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, have cited situations where music has been able to evoke a response or a memory in people with Alzheimer's. For example, your mother may have difficulty finding the right words to use but be able to sing an entire song with no problem.

Research Suggests Memory for Music Not Affected

One research project studied people with Alzheimer's and found that their memory for music was not affected by the disease: They performed similarly to those without Alzheimer's in recognizing songs and lyrics.

Although that's certainly not true for everyone with dementia, we've seen numerous people who could play complete songs on the piano or sing every word to an older song, even as they were well into the middle stages of Alzheimer's and could not remember the names of family members.

These lasting memories of music are likely an important factor in understanding why its use to treat and interact with those who have dementia can be beneficial. Research studies have demonstrated that music is an effective way to provide meaningful activities, reduce challenging behaviors, and decrease feelings of anxiety and depression in Alzheimer's. Many of us enjoy and benefit from listening to music, and this often does not change after someone develops Alzheimer's.

Music in Early Stage Alzheimer’s

In the early stages of Alzheimer's, many people enjoy playing music or singing. Encourage them to continue to be involved in music; it may be an area in which they can feel success and accomplishment, and be encouraged by its beauty.

You can also make compilation recordings of their favorite songs, which are often songs or music that date back to their younger and middle years. Some older adults may have strong spiritual beliefs and will appreciate songs of faith.

Music in Middle Stage Alzheimer’s

Some people in the middle stages of Alzheimer's can continue to play the piano (or whichever instrument they may have played) well, and benefit from it. Others may become frustrated when they forget the chord or can't read the music.

In the middle stages, when behaviors can sometimes be challenging, music is an often-effective way to distract someone. A nurse aide that we know, for example, almost always sings a song with the person she's helping while they walk together. The person walks farther because he's singing along, and has a more enjoyable time getting his daily exercises accomplished.

Music may also be beneficial to mood and sleep patterns for people with Alzheimer's. A study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine was conducted with 20 male residents who had a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer's at a nursing home.

These men participated in music therapy five times a week for four weeks. Following the four weeks, their melatonin levels were tested and had significantly increased—and remained elevated even six weeks after the conclusion of the music therapy programming. (Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles. Some people living with dementia take supplemental melatonin to aid them in sleeping better at night.)

Therapists also noted that the men demonstrated an improved ability to learn the songs and lyrics, increased social interaction, and a more relaxed and calm mood.

Music in Late Stage Alzheimer’s

In the later stages of Alzheimer's, music is often used as a way to connect with a loved one and evoke a response. People may enjoy listening to the recordings you made in the earlier stages of dementia of their favorite songs.

Familiar music may be able to calm someone who's restless or uncomfortable in the end stages of life. Some people with severe Alzheimer's will mouth the words of a familiar song upon hearing it, and visibly relax and rest in the midst of music.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fang R, Ye S, Huangfu J, Calimag DP. Music therapy is a potential intervention for cognition of Alzheimer's Disease: a mini-review. Transl Neurodegener. 2017;6:2. doi:10.1186/s40035-017-0073-9.

  2. Simmons-Stern NR, Budson AE, Ally BA. Music as a memory enhancer in patients with Alzheimer's disease. Neuropsychologia. 2010;48(10):3164-7. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.04.033

  3. Pedersen SKA, Andersen PN, Lugo RG, Andreassen M, Sütterlin S. Effects of Music on Agitation in Dementia: A Meta-Analysis. Front Psychol. 2017;8:742. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00742

  4. Kumar AM, Tims F, Cruess DG, et al. Music therapy increases serum melatonin levels in patients with Alzheimer's disease. Altern Ther Health Med. 1999;5(6):49-57.

  5. Alzheimer’s Association. Art and Music.

Additional Reading

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.