Science Says Music Helps the Minds of Dementia Patients: Maestro, Encore, Please!

Science Says Music Helps the Minds of Dementia Patients

When dealing with people of advanced age, caregivers and family members are told to remember that hearing is the last faculty to go. Caregivers are cautioned that the seemingly oblivious elderly loved one may hear every word being said. Research by Simmons-Stern, Budson, Ally and others has shown that the comprehension of music is one of the last cognitive faculties that a dementia patient keeps.

Because of dementia patients’ responsiveness to music, it is increasingly seen as an effective intervention to reduce the symptoms of dementia. Researchers are also exploring if music can reverse cognitive decline.

Linda Maguire, a former opera singer of great renown, became interested in medicine and pursued two masters’ degrees in related fields after completing her major in music. She earned a master’s degree in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience at George Mason University and one in health science and gerontology at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Maguire became interested in the connection between music and medicine—especially medicine for the mind—when she visited a ward for dementia patients. The ward was in chaos; it seemed that all the patients were experiencing agitation at once. Maguire sat at the piano and played “Amazing Grace”. To her surprise, the dementia patients became quiet, listened for a short time, and then began to sing in chorus, easily recalling the lyrics.

Singing, she said, brings about positive cognitive changes and may lead to cognitive improvement.

In Maguire’s master’s thesis, she cited numerous scientific studies showing that music helps calm dementia agitation, fend off depression, ward off social isolation, relax patients, reduce aggression, and improve the patients’ quality of life. Singing, she said, brings about positive cognitive changes and may lead to cognitive improvement. She continued her study and recently published her findings that singing leads to cognitive improvements in dementia patients in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society.

Speakers at a Harvard Medical School Longwood Seminar, “The Impact of Healing Harmonies,” noted that the connection between music and medicine is long established. Speaker Lisa Wang said that the great humanitarian, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, was also a musician who raised funds for his African missions by conducting organ concerts in Europe. The stethoscope was invented by a flautist, said Wang, a pediatrician, musician, and author who teaches at Harvard Medical School. She noted that the man considered the father of abdominal surgery as well as sterile and anesthetic techniques was a good friend of Brahms and often had musical sessions at his home. Music and healing are long time partners.

…listening to and making music engages and changes the brain.

Does music merely calm people with dementia and make them feel good as they reminisce about song in their lives? No, it does much more than that. Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and associated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, noted at the Longwood Seminar that listening to and making music engages and changes the brain. Music, he asserts, is not just a listening experience; it also evokes emotion, activates the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, and encourages movement. He said making music over long periods actually changes the function and structure of the brain due to brain plasticity. Music gives the brain a workout in several regions, and may reroute memories so they come into consciousness. Long-term musicians have a highly developed “superhighway” in their brains, experts say, that helps them master a language, multitask, and possibly stave off dementia.

Is music the key to neurological development in the young and regeneration of the mind in the old? It is beginning to look like it is.

Maestro, encore, please!



Harvard Medical School Longwood Seminar. (April 14, 2015). The Impact of Healing Harmonies. Video recording available at Retrieved 12/9/2015.

Maguire, L.E., Wamchsura, P.B., Battaglia, M.M., Howell, S.N., Flinn, J.M. (2015). Participation in active singing leads to cognitive improvements in individuals with dementia. Journal of the American Geriatric Society. 63(4):815-6. doi: 10.1111/jgs.13366. Retrieved 12/9/2015.

Milner, Conan. (November 26, 2015). Opera Singer Turned Neuroscientist Uses Music as Medicine for Dementia, Autism, and more. Epoch Times. Available online at Retrieved 12/9/2015.

Simmons-Sten, N. R., Budson, A. E., Ally, B. A. (2010). Music as a Memory Enhancer in Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. Neuropsychologia, Aug. 48(10): 3164-3167. Doi:  10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.04.033. Available online at Retrieved 12/9/2015.

Thompson, W. F., Schlaug, G. (2015). The Healing Power of Music. Scientific American. March/April: 33-41. Retrieved 12/9/2015.