Ask the Expert: Singing Awakens Memories – A Local Study


Q. I read your recent newsletter that described presentations at the Dementia Consortium and the one about music and dementia really piqued my interest. My father has moderate dementia, and we are looking for ways to get through to him, and so far it seems that not much has worked.

My family went to lots of musicals when I grew up in New York City, and he seemed to love live singing performances. I think listening to music from Broadway may bring back some memories, but trust me, no one in the nursing home wants to hear me sing.

Can you explain why music is so effective in staving off dementia, if there are any nursing homes out there that offer music therapy with singing sessions for residents, and if there are any studies that have proven that it works?

A. Though memory loss and decline in brain function are symptoms of dementia, patients often demonstrate a striking ability to remember the lyrics and melodies of songs from their past. In fact, the sound of classic songs from favorite artists or hit musicals can boost the brain function of people with dementia, according to researchers who worked with local nursing home residents in a recent study.

Over a four-month study at George Mason University, patients were led through familiar songs from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, The Wizard of Oz, and Pinocchio. The mental performance of patients who took part in regular group singing sessions improved compared with others who just listened. In fact, the sessions appeared to have a striking effect on people with moderate to severe dementia, with patients scoring higher on cognitive and drawing tests, and also on a satisfaction-with-life questionnaire at the end of the study.

Jane Flinn, one of the neuroscientists who led the study, said care homes that did not hold group singing sessions should consider them because they are entertaining and beneficial for patients with dementia. “A lot of people have grown up singing songs and for a long time the memories are still there,” said Flinn. “When they start singing it can revive those memories. Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful. The message is: don’t give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy and engaging,” she said.

“The singing sessions seemed to activate a raft of brain areas. Listening sparked activity in the temporal lobe on the right-hand side of the brain, while watching someone lead a class activated the visual areas. Singing and speaking led to more activity in the left-hand side,” Flinn said.

The findings are backed up by other work in the area. In September, researchers at Helsinki University looked at the impact of a 10-week singing course on patients with dementia. Compared with their usual care, singing and listening to music improved mood, orientation, and certain types of memory. To a lesser extent, their attention and general cognitive skills also improved.

Based on the study, below are several reasons why music helps dementia patients recall memories and emotions:

    • Music can evoke emotions in even the most advanced of dementia patients, and emotion can bring with it memory. By pairing music with every day activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to the recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time.
  • Music can bring emotional and physical closeness. In the later stages of dementia, patients often lose the ability to share emotions with caregivers. Music can bring back feelings of security and good memories and awaken these emotions.
  • Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients. These two abilities remain long after other abilities have passed, so music is an excellent way to reach the person behind the disease.
  • Singing is engaging. The singing sessions in the study activated the left side of the brain; listening to music sparked activity in the right; and watching the class activated visual areas of the brain. With so much of the brain being stimulated, the patients were exercising more brain power than usual.
  • Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, “[w]hen used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.” This is because music requires little to no mental processing, so singing music does not require the cognitive function that is missing in most dementia patients.


Want to learn more? For more details on singing and dementia, please visit the SingFit website.

Recorded music by favorite artists has also proven to be effective for dementia patients. Music & Memory is a non-profit that works with individual professionals or an entire team of caregivers within elder care facilities, along with family members, to create a powerful personalized music program for each person who chooses to participate. A couple years ago, its video, “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory,” went viral and received news coverage around the world. Watch videos and read stories about the founder, Dan Cohen, explaining why music acts as a back door to memory and tips for enjoying music with the elders in your life. Music & Memory also offers resources on how you can get trained and facilities that offer Music & Memory programs.

Dementia Planning

At the Farr Law Firm, we are excited to see how singing sessions, and programs such as Music and Memory, are enhancing the quality of life for dementia patients. Do you have a loved one who is suffering from dementia? Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. If you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, we can help you prepare for your future financial and long-term care needs. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits. Call us today at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, or 202-587-2797 in Washington, DC to make an appointment for a consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.