Music has the power to transcend time and space and it allows us to connect to our past. – Jing Xia

As ethnomusicologist Jennie Gubner, Ph.D. explained in a talk about the power of music in dementia, anyone can benefit from thinking about the relationship between music, culture and wellness.

In the context of dementia caregiving, music can promote wellness for both the caregiver and the person living with dementia.

In her talk, Dr. Gubner encouraged listeners to take a step back from Alzheimer’s disease and aging and to think about what music does to your brain health and to your life, in general.

Trying to understand what role music plays throughout one’s lifespan can help us figure out what music can do to brain health in a dementia caregiving setting.

Dr. Gubner has focused her research, teaching, and community work on  the effects of personalized music and how this ties into music and brain health.

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As ethnomusicologist Jennie Gubner, Ph.D. explained in a talk about the power of music in dementia, anyone can benefit from thinking about the relationship between music, culture and wellness. In the context of dementia caregiving, music can promote wellness for both the caregiver and the person living with dementia.
How does the brain respond to music? Read Dr. Gubner’s conversation about the power of music in dementia caregiving.

What follows is our summary of Dr. Gubner’s conversation about the power of music in dementia caregiving and some of her answers to our questions.

How does the Brain Respond to Music?

“Music, especially music we love, activates many areas of the brain at once”

– Oliver Sachs, Ph.D.

Music affects our brain, but music that we know, are familiar with and music we associate with positive or meaningful experiences can affect our brains even more.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks once ran an experiment where he put himself through an MRI scan to look at his brain reacting while he listened to music.

As he loves Bach and but he’s not fond of Beethoven, he went through twice. Each time, he listened to one of these two composers. Many regions of his brain activated on the scan when he was listening to music that he loved. This did not happen when he scanned his brain while listening to music that he did not love.

Thus, music boosts brain activity by recalling personal memories and emotions associated with it.


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Why is Music Good for Brain Health and Dementia Caregiving

Ethnomusicology is the study of music and how it relates to culture. It includes the study of different music cultures and it can also include the study of aging in those cultures.

For the last few years, Dr. Gubner has been researching and developing community-based university courses about music and aging, and music and dementia. In her talk, she mentioned three pillars that relate to the effects of music in our lives and how this ties into music and brain health.

Music and brain health. The power of music in dementia care.
Film made at the Better Day Club in Bloomington Indiana by students Carl Newmark & Amy Stroud in Dr. Jennie Gubner’s course, Music & Memory: Documenting Music and dementia through Film at IU, Fall 2017

Music and Brain Health: Connection between Music and Identity

Music helps us identify, develop, reinforce, express and feel connected to our sense of identity all throughout our lives.

It is of utmost importance for humans to understand who we are and know our place in the world. Music evokes memories and helps connect to our identity in many ways. For example, listening to:

  • Bob Marley as a teenager and connecting with his social messages
  • music from the 60s and and building your identity around the political messages of the folk revival
  • Celia Cruz as a way to connect to your Cuban heritage
  • punk music because you want to be everything except what your parents are

These are all ways in which we music can help us negotiate who we are in the world.

Oliver Sachs, Ph.D. & neurologist, on the meaning of music.
Oliver Sachs, Ph.D. & neurologist, on the meaning of music.

Music and Dementia Caregiving

Musical memories are often preserved in dementia patients because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease. – Mayo Clinic

Thus, music can be a valuable tool in dementia caregiving as a way to reconnect to a person’s sense of identity. A person living with dementia may not know who they are, what their name is or what day it is, but when you play Elvis they can sing every word to a song.

Musical memories are often preserved in dementia patients because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.
Musical abilities are kept even after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

When we are able to use music as an identity trigger to remind people of who they are, we can help them reconnect to their sense of self.

– Jennie Gubner, PhD Ethnomusicologist at the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music and Applied Intercultural Arts Research Graduate Interdisciplinary Program

Dementia caregivers could use personalized music, music that means something to the patient, to provide care that is focused on self and personality.

So, music can often have a positive effect on those living with dementia or caring for someone with dementia.

The Power of Music: Social Connection

Humans are very social creatures and music is a great way to connect with other people.

It takes humans to make music. It takes humans to listen to music. Using music as a social connector, symbolically or physically, can be very important.

Dr. Gubner encouraged us to think of the social ways in which we connect to each other through music:

  • Belting out a song in your car with your family on a road trip
  • Salsa dancing on a Friday night
  • Watching a TV program about a parade in New Orleans, that reminds you of your childhood home and experiences
  • Playing music with your friends that connects you all to a sense of heritage
  • Singing in houses of worship

We know that social isolation and loneliness are very bad for our brains. The flip side of that is that music becomes a tool that can help us stay socially connected.

Even if you can’t be physically with your grandmother you can find ways connect. You can make a list of all the songs that you shared together and she can listen to it when she can’t be with you. There is still a way for her to feel socially connected to you.

How music relates to culture and mind: tips for dementia caregivers. Photo by Ross Brillhart.
How music relates to culture and mind: tips for dementia caregivers. Photo by Ross Brillhart.

The Power of Music in Dementia Caregiving: Benefits of Music Therapy

People with dementia tend to socially isolate because of a variety of reasons. From the daily stresses of living with cognitive impairment to the social stigma of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. They make people withdraw.

In the context of dementia care, we can use music as a way to combat loneliness, social isolation and to offer opportunities for meaningful social connections.

Oftentimes, verbal communication can become difficult as dementia progresses. We can wield the power of music in dementia caregiving and offer opportunities for social engagement that doesn’t involve talking.

There is no need to talk if we sit and enjoy music with somebody. And that can be a very powerful way to socially connect without words.

The Power of Music on the Brain: Music as a Mood Regulator

Music is a complex sensory experience that affects our brains in many ways. One of them is mood regulation.

The Power of Music in Dementia Caregiving: Benefits of Music Therapy.
Music is a form of therapy that everyone can enjoy.

All around the world, people use music to relax, to de-stress, to focus, to motivate, to exercise, to put their children to sleep. We see this cross-culturally.

Music is a tool for regulating your own emotional state and for helping regulate the emotional state of others.

Music, Brain Health and Dementia Care: Mood Regulation

In dementia caregiving, music can be used to try to improve mood. It has been shown to make certain activities like taking a shower, getting dressed, or even swallowing, easier.

If someone is in a dementia caregiving capacity, they need to understand that using music therapy isn’t just about turning on the radio.

Caregivers should consider both:

  1. what kind of music is most meaningful to a person
  2. which one is the most appropriate to the individual needs of the patient

The music choices would be different if there is a need for relaxation or a need for distraction or motivation.

Taking extra time to understand what music is meaningful to the Alzheimer’s patient will lead to more positive reactions.

Latest Research Findings Music and the Brain

Recent studies are beginning to understand the relationships between music, brain health and cognitive function. But there is still a lot of work to be done in this field.

Some of the interesting associations coming out of recent studies include:

  • Musical training for children associated with increased brain development. Having musical instrument training in school may be good for child development.
  • Sustained musical instrument playing for older adults could be helpful to preserve cognitive abilities, processing speed and memory.
  • Cultural events like concerts have been associated with building cognitive reserve, which is a big umbrella term we use to talk about brain resilience as we age.
  • Social music making like community choirs promote wellbeing and reduce social isolation and loneliness.
  • Dance has been associated with increased functional improvements in balance and attention.

All of these examples show how music can be helpful in connecting a person to memories and to loved one, to one’s identity and to things that are important to us as humans improving quality of life.

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