The Healing Power of Music

Dec 25, 2017

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The Healing Power of Music

The Healing Power of Music

“Music connects people with who they have been, who they are and their lives. Because what happens when you get old is all the things you are familiar with, and your identity, it all just begins peeling away…”  Alive Inside Documentary

As Christmas approaches we can see cities decorated with lights, dressed up in beautiful colours, maybe even wrapped in icy white snow crystals. We can smell cinnamon, delicious foods being cooked at Christmas markets, and hear all those beloved Christmas songs, as we wander the streets trying to pick the perfect gift for our loved ones. Whether it’s in shopping malls, on the streets, in Churches or at home, music seems to be omnipresent at this time of year. Have you ever found yourself transported back to another place, another time, while listening to Michael Bublé and Mariah Carey sing their Christmas hymns? Would Christmas be the same without the music? Certainly not. Music is an incredibly powerful tool that elicits emotions and memories that we may even have forgotten existed. What is it about music that makes it so special? And how can we use it to our advantage to help those affected by dementia?

Music and our brains

We know that the auditory system in the brain is the first to become fully functional when we are 16 weeks old. We are therefore receptive to musical stimuli from a very early age onwards. It is thought that our brains are equipped with nerve cells that are specifically receptive to auditory inputs- whenever we perceive a sound, these nerve cells become active. However, brain imaging study in Finland found that listening to music recruits not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also employs other large scale networks. These include areas responsible for motor function and limbic areas, involved in the processing of emotions. Music also engages areas of the brain that are involved in paying attention, making predictions and updating events in memory. In short this means, music engages many different parts of our brain keeping them active. This may be part of the reason why music is so powerful. It is thought that music, and in particular singing, can unlock memories and kickstart the grey matter. Listening to music has also been shown to release dopamine, a chemical that when released in the brain causes us to feel happy.

Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus…” – Alive Inside Documentary

Importantly, music appears to reach parts of the damaged brains in ways other forms of communication cannot. For all these reasons, music has become an increasingly key feature in dementia care to reach even those that can no longer talk. Music used as a sensory and intellectual stimulation can help maintain quality of life, and may even improve it.

At early stages, music therapy may help maintain cognitive levels and enhance overall brain functioning. At later stages music therapy can:

  1. Help with memory recall
  2. Lead to positive changes in mood and emotional state
  3. Elicit a sense of control
  4. Help manage pain and discomfort
  5. Stimulate those who suffer from apathy
  6. Help with rhythmic, continuous movement and vocal fluency
  7. Promote social interaction

Music therapy in a clinical trial: how effective is it?

As we are shaping music as a tool in dementia care, various clinical trials to establish the effectiveness of music therapy are ongoing. One of these is a trial run by the University of Melbourne in Australia titled Remini Sing: therapeutic choirs to improve well-being and relationship quality for those living with dementia. This trial will start recruitment on January 29th 2018, and aims to recruit 180 people and randomise them into 2 groups. Those assigned to the music therapy intervention group will receive 20 weekly 2 hour choir sessions consisting of singing and social interaction. These sessions will be facilitated by a registered music therapist in a community venue, who will also educated participants on how to use their own music therapeutically at home. The study is aiming to assess relationship quality between people living with dementia and their family caregivers, looking specifically at the impact music therapy may have on anxiety, caregiver burden and depression, and quality of life.

How you can get involved

We haven’t done anything to touch the heart and soul of a patient”– Alive Inside Documentary

Music therapy is something you can easily do at home. But there are also many organisations that provide musical therapy. In the UK these include: Singing for the brain, Music for life, Lost chord, Golden Oldies, and Live Music Now, which provides live musicians to every care home in the UK. Singing for the brain is run by the Alzheimer’s Society in 30 different locations around the UK and aims to boost confidence, self esteem and quality of life by providing interactive sing-song sessions, and quizzes, which involve playing familiar tunes. The Rebecca Center for Music Therapy in New York also promotes the use of music therapy to help stimulate communication and memory skills. No matter where you may be, make sure to check what is available in your community (dance classes, choirs, sing along sessions etc). B

There are many helpful online resources that you can access regardless of where you are. There is a website that allows you to create a playlist for a loved one, and many books that provide guidance. These include “Music therapy in dementia care” by David Aldridge and “Connecting through music with people with dementia: a guide for caregivers” by Robin Rio

Below are a few tips for caregivers on how you can use music to help you:

  1. When verbal communication fails using familiar songs can help soothe and take the edge of difficult moments
  2. Use soft music to create a calm environment
  3. Use soft background music during bathing
  4. Use animated and happy songs in the morning to help you and your loved one get started
  5. Sing familiar songs together. This is a welcome distraction, and can help the person with dementia snap out of repetitive action or behaviour
  6. Make a playlist of different kind of songs for different kinds of mood
  7. Use an app for music learning and sing along
  8. Make sure songs are not connected to sad events or may bring up bad memories
  9.  Use music to connect with others by joining local groups or just having a sing-a-long with friends! The great thing about music is that it brings people together, and allows them to interact and bond over something they love.  Never underestimate the value of social interaction.

The beautiful thing is music can be like a time machine. One song- the lyrics, the melody, the mood- can take you back to a moment in time like nothing else can.”- Alive Inside Documentary

In today’s blog I have used the example of Christmas to highlight how much music surrounds us every day, and how we may use it to help those suffering from dementia. But regardless of your culture or belief system, music will play a key role. Why not use it as a tool to improve your quality of life? There is a wonderful documentary called “Alive Inside, which you can watch to find out more about music and its effect on those living with dementia.

Merry Christmas from all of us at CogniHealth!

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