The effects of music on people with Dementia

The radio is on and you can hear a cheerful summer hit. The uplifting tunes and temperamental sounds fill the room. You spontaneously forget that bad news that you have just read or heard, or vice versa; a gloomy rainy day on which everything seems to be disappointing, and that quiet sensitive song makes you even slightly moodier than you already were. The rock-solid power of music. A universal language that unleashes something in people. Music even has so much power that it is also often used in therapies. This week we will discuss the effects of music on people with Dementia.

Music is an universal language

Music is a great stimulus for the brain

The connection between music and Dementia is the subject of an increasing number of studies – some early evidence even points to music as a potential therapeutic treatment for the disease. It sounds farfetched, but new research is uncovering how it can help patients manage the disease and maybe even recover memories, and make them feel much happier. Musical activities can improve the behavior and mood of Dementia patients.

Listening to the right melody can even help patients retain their speech and language skills for much longer because processing music requires a different part of the brain.

Music can be a lifeline for people living with Dementia. It facilitates shared, quality musical moments with friends, family, and caretakers. Music for people living with Dementia isn’t a nicety, it’s a necessity.

What happens with Alzheimer or Dementia?

Every person has a mind that stores memories and retrieves them when an incentive arises. It is very difficult for people with Dementia to recall these memories because the memory is slowly deteriorating. How can specific numbers ensure that memories from the past are retrieved from people with Dementia?

Many people think that Dementia causes brain cells to die. Some brain cells die, but certainly not all. One characteristic of Dementia is atrophy or shriveling.

The sense of touch

Touching, hugging and stroking people with Dementia is very important. With dementia, many pain cores are destroyed, except for the so-called S1 area.

That is the primary somatic sensory area where all sensory stimuli reside. What does that mean? In the final stage of Dementia, the sense of touch remains intact the longest. To communicate with people with advanced Dementia is best done through the sense of touch.

What does music do?

The images or memories can be evoked by stimuli, such as familiar sounds or a familiar song. The part in your brain that is activated by music is one of the last areas in the brain that is affected by Dementia. Certain sounds or music that are very recognizable for someone with Dementia and that are linked to certain memories can be recalled by hearing these sounds.

Without this sound stimulus, the person with Dementia would not be able to recall the memory, but because the memory is so strongly linked to a certain sound, this memory is immediately evoked upon hearing this specific sound. Scientists call this a “music-evoked autobiographical memory“.

Someone with Dementia can sometimes sing along flawlessly. The music can give your loved one or patient peace of mind if they are irritated. Activates them when they are passive and makes them happy when they are sad.

Music evokes memories that people thought were lost forever. If we succeed in finding the right tone, music adds something beautiful to the quality of life of our elderly people with Dementia.

Music evoked autobiographical memory

Scientists call a memory so strongly linked to a song a “music-evoked autobiographical memory”. When you hear a familiar song from your past, the rhythm comes in through your ears and your basal ganglia are activated. This is involved in controlling movements and your reward system.

At the same time, your brainstem is activated, which activates the motor nerve cells in your spinal cord that, among other things, control your muscles, so that you have to move on the recognizable number. Think of bouncing your foot on the melody or cradling your memory.

The melody and the brain

The melody comes through the brainstem into the auditory bark so that after the first few tones you recognize the song and your superior frontal gurys and premotore cortex are activated. Because the music is stored in your brain along with memories from the past, they come up when you hear the familiar sounds – including the feeling that comes with it.

This allows music to create powerful emotions. Although the brain shrinks due to Dementia, the oldest memories remain intact until the last moment. The most recent memories perish until the age of 21.

People with Dementia cannot reach these memories independently, but music or familiar sounds are a means to gain access to these memories. When it is possible to find the right tone, this memory and the feeling associated with this memory are relived.

Find the correct tones

How do you know which music the person with Dementia likes or knows how to touch?

Start with what you know about the favorite music of the person with Dementia. This usually has a positive effect, especially if one is still in the initial phase of the disease. The music will release memories and feelings. Keep in mind that these can also be negative memories. Dementia may also have drastically changed his or her original music preference.

Do you not know the favorite music or do they not respond?

Then look for the music from the period in their lives between the ages of 15 and 25 and see how they respond to it.

It appears that the music that people hear in the age of 15 – 25 years, is deeply anchored in memory and is accompanied by many memories.

Think broadly with music. It is not only about popular radio music, but also about songs that were sung at home, from the (birth) region or spiritual songs. Does the person with Dementia not respond or does he or she show resistance? Then try again at a different time. Who knows, it might work.

Music therapy

In residential facilities or nursing homes, music therapy can be used in the treatment of patients with dementia. Music therapy is an adequate means to “wake up” people who are completely introverted. Sometimes for a short moment, sometimes for longer. It does not cure Dementia and does not slow down the deterioration process, but it does improve the quality of life because the person with Dementia has fun, is alert and enjoys the music.

In the nursing home where I currently work, music and movement are given very actively. Every day music is experienced with the patients in different ways. In my experience, I see a smile, a twinkle in the eyes or the movement of the hands and feet to the rhythm of the music.

Movement of the hands

The different forms of music therapy

We have two forms:

  1. The receptive (listening) therapy and
  2. The active (singing/playing) therapy

Which form is used depends very much on the stage at which people with Dementia are. However, music therapy can still be used at any stage. Even people in the final stages still respond to music. This is because the body often continues to respond, even when the patient barely expresses himself.

How music is helping those with Alzheimer

For people in a less advanced stage, making active music is very important, because they also move. Movement has been shown to stimulate the brain and therefore keep it healthier. In that case, it, therefore, has a dual effect.

The documentary Alive Inside shows the impact of music on the lives of people with Dementia.

What is the added value of music therapy?

Medication is often taken quickly when we want to reduce behavioral problems in people with dementia. In this case, medication has side effects. When someone has to take multiple types of medication, they can suffer from polypharmacy — this is when medication affects each other. This usually causes additional side effects.

That is why it is important to look for alternatives that do not require medication. Music therapy is ideal for this, but little is known about it.

Music enables people to be contributors and not just recipients of care. It provides opportunities for people to reconnect with a sense of autonomy and agency, at times when they may feel as though they have little or no control because of the impact of Dementia.

The Experience Concert as Methodology

In brief is a methodology that is given as a form of music therapy.

The Experience Concert is an experience-oriented, sensory form of coming together, making contact and sharing, using music and singing, atmosphere and touch, scent and candlelight. Known and unknown songs are sung and improvisation. Singing and playing on all kinds of (mostly simple) instruments.

The purpose of the Experience Concert is to reach people in what lives inside and what carries them. In the experience concerts music is used to make contact, to provide experiences of meaning and meaning and to envelop people with warmth and safety.

A method of music

The Experience Concert is a method of music and meaning, focused on personal attention for, connectedness with and dignity of people with Dementia.

There are a lot of songs suitable for singing at an experience concert. To begin especially with the songs that you know yourself. Look for well-known old songs, beautiful canons, simple classical songs, mantras from all over the world, lullaby songs or music that evokes a beautiful atmosphere of warmth and cover. Also, think of songs from someone’s home country or region or someone’s favorite song.

Songs from someone’s home country or region or someone’s favorite song.
For inspiration

Here is a list of songs that are very suitable for experience concerts and are often known to the current generation of elderly people.


Nature Songs

  • Strong winds, deep river
  • The river is flowing 
  • Evening rise, spirit come
  • Out of darkness shall come dawn

All kinds of songs

  • Vem kan segla förutan vind (Scandinavian song)
  • Dans nos obscurité is (a song from Taizé)
  • Guten abend, gut nacht (from J. Brahms)
  • Bajuschki Baju (German / Russian)
  • Namaste (written by Jan Kortie)
  • E mokonzi (African song, written by Jan Kortie)
  • Nina Bobo (Indonesian lullaby) 
  • Fa yu kan tak mi no moi (Surinamese song) 
  • Joe mama (Surinamese song) 


  • Ik zou weleens willen weten
  • Het zijn de kleine dingen die het doen 
  • Ik heb eerbied voor jouw grijze haren 
  • Samenzijn
  • Tulpen uit Amsterdam 
  • Ik geef je een roosje mijn roosje 
  • Ritme van de regen
  • Wie rusten wil in ’t groene woud
  • In ’t groene dal, in ’t stille dal
  • Langs berg en dal
  • ’t Zonnetje gaat van ons scheiden

Do realize that people with (advanced) Dementia have a slower incentive processing.

You can make many songs suitable for experience concerts by singing them more slowly, then people can “keep up” with the music. It looks at what people themselves indicate, their pace when they sing along or move along.

Music touches something that a disease like Dementia has no control over. For this reason, I want to promote the “Music for Dementia 2020” campaign.

It is a national campaign to make music available for everyone living with Dementia by 2020, in the United Kingdom. How binding it would be if such a campaign were organized by more countries worldwide.

When you need more information or tips don’t hesitate to contact us.