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Fighting dementia with music
The key to memory

Music can be the key to unlocking forgotten memories.
Music can be the key to unlocking forgotten memories. | Photo (detail): © beatleoff/Adobe

Pretty much every person has musical associations with their past. As it turns out, melodies and sounds can help people with dementia access long-forgotten memories. 

By Katja Marquardt

Unfortunately, there appears to be no cure for dementia on the horizon, and drug research has stalled. “So there has been some rethinking in dementia research in the last 20 years,” Arthur Schall of the Goethe University in Frankfurt says. Scientists and therapists are therefore looking for ways to improve the quality of life for people with dementia and enable them to live fuller lives with and despite the disease.

Schall, a psychologist, musicologist and art historian, has been researching creative therapeutic interventions for quite a few years. In various research projects, he and his colleagues have shown that alternative therapeutic approaches, such as music therapy, can have similar effects as medication on behavior, mood and well-being.

Patient’s individual music history is key

The completed Frankfurt “Klangbrücken” (Sound Bridges) pilot project, for example, looked at the effects of individual music therapy on dementia patients. The study demonstrated that listening to biographically relevant music could reduce the restlessness, depression and apathy typical for people with dementia - at least in the short term - and increase their emotional well-being. “New connections can also be formed in a brain affected by dementia,” Schall says. Music could prove to be the key to reactivating memories thought to have been forgotten. “Our music memory is stored in another part of the brain from our biographical memories. Lyrics from songs we heard as children or young adults are often immediately accessible again as soon as the tune begins to play.”

Music can help people regain their sense of self, though, as Schall explains, a person’s personal music history is the key to unlocking music’s positive effects: “It is useless to play pop hits for someone who used to sing in a church choir or grew up listening to classical music.”

Singing along boosts memory 

Various initiatives throughout Germany are building on these findings and designing programmes to help people suffering from dementia. These include the “Klang und Leben” (Sound and Life) project in Hanover, where senior living centres can book concerts free of charge. All the musicians involved in the project have been trained to deal with dementia, and take residents on a musical journey through time.

In cooperation with the dementia+art initiative, Cologne’s WDR Symphony Orchestra has played free chamber concerts for people with dementia and their families since 2012. The regular concerts are also teaching events where the musicians talk about their instruments, for example. The music performed is carefully selected so pieces are catchy and not too long. And at the end, the audience is invited to join in a sing-along. 

WDR Symphony Orchestra manager Siegwald Bütow confirms the research findings from personal experience: people suffering from dementia show amazing recall when singing along to a familiar song. “We are always amazed at how focused our visitors are. It is really moving to watch how the music opens them up and brings a smile to their faces.” As a public broadcaster, he adds, WDR has more leeway in programme development than commercial broadcasters. 

Coming alive through music

There has been a lot of positive feedback for the music program. Families of people with dementia have often stopped taking their loved ones to concerts for fear they might create a disturbance. “We create an atmosphere where people can just relax and enjoy the concert,” Bütow says. Goethe University researcher Schall notes that a shared musical experience can also have a positive impact on relatives. “It helps people reconnect because you no longer need language to understand each other on an emotional level.”

Other concert organizers have followed suit. The Staatstheater Nürnberg will play its very first concert for this target group as part of the new “Heart and Soul” program scheduled for spring 2019. Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and the Resonanz Ensemble invite people with dementia and their families to interact with music through the “Ferne Klänge” (Far-Off Sounds) series, where well-known soloists perform works by Telemann, Schumann, Dvořa, Copland and Glass.

And while, as a rule, music therapy works best when highly personalized, public concerts for people with dementia send an important social message, Schall says. “Dementia not only isolates those affected, but their families as well. So participation is really important – these musical programs help those affected to rejoin society and to participate in cultural life.”