Music can help Alzheimer’s patients

Editor’s Note: This column was originally published Nov. 16, 2019.

Alzheimer’s disease, especially in its later stages, can put a wall between the sufferer and the outside world. As cognitive abilities deteriorate, the sufferer usually becomes increasingly confused and agitated. They may lose (or seem to lose) memories, become disoriented and lost, misidentify people, lash out or throw tantrums, or withdraw completely. In extreme cases, they may seem entirely shut off from the world.

One treatment for Alzheimer’s that has gained more and more attention in recent years is music therapy. Increasingly popular with senior care and Alzheimer’s experts, music therapy has proven effective at providing emotional engagement for Alzheimer’s patients where other treatments fail.

The reason for this, as the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America explains, is that music requires “little to no cognitive or mental processing.” Auditory and rhythmic responses are controlled by the motor center of the brain, which remains relatively unaffected by Alzheimer’s, even in later stages. Because of this, when an Alzheimer’s sufferer hears music, they are not confused or disoriented, as they are with other forms of stimulation.

What makes music therapy especially valuable is the emotional responses it activates. Studies have shown that upbeat, up-tempo music improves the mood of Alzheimer’s patients. Slower, relaxing tunes often have a therapeutic effect, helping to reduce agitation and anger. Since emotional volatility is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to caring for seniors with Alzheimer’s, this has proven a major breakthrough in providing treatment.

Music therapy seems to work best with music that the sufferer already knows – in particular, songs the person learned before the age of 25. If the sufferer is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it can be valuable to ask which songs from their childhood, teenage years, or early adulthood they most enjoy. If they have already reached the later stages of the disease, asking those who knew them in their youth or making an educated guess can also be effective.

It is important when using music therapy to limit overstimulation. It is best to reduce other distractions and to play music that is commercial-free. Commercial interruptions can cause confusion and lead to increased agitation. It is also important not to play the music too loud and to watch carefully how the person reacts. Some songs might prove soothing for one person and upsetting for another. This sometimes happens when a song is tied to an unpleasant emotion or memory, such as a failed relationship or a lost loved one. Read the person’s face for clues as to their mood and try another song if they seem to get distressed.

One of the biggest positives to music therapy is how it can help make in home senior care more manageable. Combined with other treatment strategies, music therapy can help extend the time that care recipients spend in the comfort of their home – something extremely important for the emotional wellbeing of persons with brain disorders.

— Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home assessment, call 330-332-1203.

Top songs used by music therapists


“Oh, What A Beautiful Morning”

“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”

“My Wild Irish Rose”

“Don’t Fence Me In”


“Tennessee Waltz”

“Hey Good Lookin”

“Love Me Tender”

“Que Sera Sera”

“Happy Trails”


“What a Wonderful World”

“Moon River”

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco”

“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”



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