Music & Memory: Access & Connect Despite Cognitive Impairment

We worry our memories may be failing, especially when we misplace the keys or forget someone’s name.

Our memories are not kept in a box for easy retrieval but are, as we learn more about the brain every day, stored in many parts of our brains and work together when needed.

The brain actually breaks down our request for memory and processes it on demand.

Driving a car takes more memory processing than you might think. Some of the steps to process include:

  • Finding the key
  • Turning on the key
  • Operating the vehicle
  • Obeying traffic laws and signals
  • Watching for others on the road
  • Knowing where you are heading/directions

…and other thoughts to get us from point A to point B.

Even when one part of the brain may be damaged, such as in cognitive loss, other parts may still be functioning well.

What can we do as family caregivers with our senior loved ones to help improve their memory skills?

Music has been shown to find stored memories more easily and help seniors with dementia reconnect with the world around them.

Long Term Memories

As opposed to your senior’s short term memories, such where they put the house key or a phone number of a neighbor, long term memory is more permanent, with a place in the brain devoted to storing it.

Long term memories are those we have decided, whether or not we realize it, have importance and need to be stored (at a time when we are capable of storing them) or have been repeated over time and thus are stored.

Recollections our senior loved ones have of parts of their lives, special events, and life experiences that hold emotion for them – something that made them feel and think are long term memories that get stored.

Memories Rewritten

Long term memory improves and deepens with age and can influence seniors today. They believe that these long term memories are great things. These memories are often embellished. More importantly, they can affect behavior and choice.

Some long term memories actually are ‘rewritten’ by our seniors. The events become more fulfilling, more special and changed by the act of remembering.

Our seniors are shining a positive light on the memories which can affect their opinion of their current situation in a positive way too.

Becoming nostalgic and reminiscing about positive events can impact our seniors’ emotions today. They may not be able to change the fact that they are experiencing functional decline with aging but they were something special in their prime – witty, energetic and fun to be around.

Singing and the Aging Brain

A new report finds that, for people with early stage dementia, singing (not just listening to music) can improve brain function and mood.

For participants who sang, thinking skills, memory and their ability to find their way around improved compared to those who either listened to the music or had no music intervention.

The improvement from signing was found in people younger than 80 with mild dementia, while those with advanced dementia were the only group that showed an improvement when listening to music.

An interesting byproduct was a decline in symptoms of depression for participants who both sang and listened to music.

Prior musical training, such as playing an instrument when they were younger, had no impact on the outcomes observed.

Researchers respond that finding musical activities should be applied and used widely in dementia care, not only in a facility setting but with family caregivers as a means to stimulate cognition and maintain emotional well-being in those with dementia.

Singing seems to be more effective because of the level of engagement required compared to passive listening.

Brain Connection – Music to Memory

Not only for our senior loved ones but us as well, music is linked with special memories. We hear a song or even a melody and a memory comes rushing back into our consciousness.

The reason is that our brains are wired to connect music via our long term memory.

Regardless of our seniors’ cognitive function, even those with severe dementia, music evokes memory.

In fact, people with dementia can access well-preserved memories through music.

Music can act as a calming agent for brain activity which in turn can help a person with dementia focus on the music and lyrics of a song in the present tense thereby connecting with those around them.

That connection can come as a surprise to family caregivers who are used to their senior loved one being unconnected, uncommunicative and seemingly lost in their own world.

In dementia, making new memories or finding words/language is difficult due to damage to specific parts of the brain. When a person listens to music, the brain processes both the music and the feelings.

Words and lyrics involve a different area of the brain. Foot tapping involves a different part of the brain influencing motor control.

Listening to music awakens parts of the brain where music memory is stored that still function but are being untapped.

Music Tips for Family Caregivers

Experts in the field of brain health, dementia and aging agree that using music can help soothe a person with cognitive impairment, evoke a deep seated memory, remind a person of a life experience (good and bad), or encourage motor movements.

Here are some tips about music that family caregivers can use in their daily routines to stimulate their senior loved one’s cognition.

  1. Use unfamiliar music to develop a new response, such as sleep or relaxation.
  2. Find songs that are familiar to your senior from childhood and sing along. Encourage them to sing the words, not just listen. Sing holiday carols to bring in the season.
  3. Play rhythmic music to get their toes tapping to increase movement.
  4. Select some music to play during activities of daily living, such as eating or bathing, to help keep them focused on the task.
  5. Find soothing melodies that will help them relax for a nap or bedtime.
  6. If your senior loved one becomes agitated or frustrated, use calming or meditative music to reduce their behaviors and refocus their attention. Use music in the background to affect their mood.
  7. Create playlists ahead of time with titles for specific purposes such as “calming”, “sleeping”, “bathing”, “singing” or “dancing” so that you are always ready when the need arises. These songs should be based on your senior’s favorite tunes.
  8. If your senior can tolerate it, go out to music venues and listen to music such as concerts, symphony, bands, or other forms of music entertainment events.
  9. Did your senior play an instrument? Get them connected with that instrument again so that they can play. If not, try cymbals, small drum, maracas, kazoo, bells or other noisemakers and start your own band!
  10. Play music for physical activity and make it a routine, even if from a seated position. Try musical chairs, dancing, hopscotch, or other movements set to music.

Music is easy to access every day.

When we realize the effect it can have on our senior loved ones’ mood and quality of life, we will seek it out to the benefit of both caregiver and senior.


When words leave off, music begins. — Heinrich Heine

Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory — Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music is what feelings sound like. ~Author Unknown