Don’t Forget the Lyrics: Music and Memory

I love music… In case you didn’t already know.

The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music. –Kurt Vonnegut

Well, in relation to this music love, I saw that one of my Facebook friends posted this video.  And generally I don’t watch videos people post on Facebook.  But, this one related to two things I love… Music and old people.  Oh yes.

Take a moment and watch this.  Seriously.

I almost cried when I watched it.  The transformation of people listening to music can be amazing.  Especially if it is familiar and loved.

It gives me the feeling of love… I figure right now the world needs to come into music. -Henry

The change in Henry is so apparent.  You can tell he loves music.  You can tell it is genuine and that he is still affected by his underlying disease process, but when he sings, it is almost as if nothing is wrong at all.

In high school, I had to take this course called “Theory of Knowledge.”  I preferentially thought of it as “knowledge of eye gouging.”  But, despite that, I learned a fair bit.  One part of the course involved doing a half hour presentation on a way of knowing.  I did my presentation on music as a way of knowing.  I also ended up doing one of my big biology research projects on music as a memory tool.  Both of these looked at the ways in which we remember things based on musical sequences and talked a bit about why we like music and remember music.  Interestingly, by using music, we tend to remember things better because it engrains both the verbal information, as well as the pattern of the notes and the rhythm.  Different brain bits working together.  And our music bit of brain is one of the last to atrophy.  Therefore, it takes more work to break up the bits from communicating and thus we remember music longer than a lot of other stuff..

Bach gave us God’s word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words. -Unknown

Music therapy is a popular technique in medicine today.  The children’s hospital where I did pediatrics has a music therapy program.  Some of the very profoundly disabled children respond more to music than anything else.  It can be used to help with reaching developmental milestones, including various physical skills and cognitive skills.  Plus, it is fun!

Hospitals and nursing homes, like the one shown in the video also employ music therapy…. Generally, this is done informally in many of the places around here… Playing music for people who like it, having groups come in to perform and encouraging participation.  But, it can be done more formally by music therapists, who are trained to reach out to people using music.

A great description of music therapy is found in the Jodi Picoult book, Sing You Home.

I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.
-Billy Joel

Anyway, being a part of some of the more informal music groups involved with hospitals and nursing homes, I have had a chance to see the difference music makes.  Generally for the better (though, there was this one time my high school band was at a nursing home where one of the residents repeatedly yelled at us “go home!”  To which the conductor replied, “Sorry, we don’t take requests.”).  I have seen people bob and dance.  Smiles on those who rarely move.  People singing and laughing.  It is just fantastic.  The med school choir has gone in to the ICU to sing at Christmas time and it was great to see the reactions of both patients and families.

Even more informally, during my rotation in a Hospice, I had informal jam sessions with one of our more musical patients.  We even did little mini-shows for the other staff and residents (see post here).  Good times.

When words fail, Music speaks. – H.C. Anderson

One of my grandmothers has Alzheimer’s and it is interesting to see her when the “oldies” are on the radio, particularly old fashioned country music.  She sings along and looks quite content… Rather out of character for her (given that she once claimed to hate this music and would try to convince my grandfather to listen to the nice new country).  She doesn’t always know who she is driving with, or at least how she knows them, but she remembers the words or at least the tune.  Pretty interesting.

Music, after all, is the background score to our lives, not merely surviving in our memory banks long after so many of our seemingly stronger memories have faltered, but serving to remind us of who we were at a given moment of our lives, where we were, what we dreamed of, what we feared, and of course who we loved. –Unknown

I also had a patient who had meningitis in her teens and was minimally responsive.  She was admitted for sepsis and her care worker from her nursing home told me on history that she loved music  It seemed irrelevant.  But, every day I would go in, she would look terrified… In a “bair hugger,” a private isolation room and alone, I would be terrified too.  So, I decided to give it a try.  I sang her songs during my assessment.  Whatever was in my head.  Once she was improving, she would smile and make eye contact (maybe she was laughing at me, but whatever works).  I like to think our music moments made her stay a bit better.

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.
-Bob Marley

So, there you have it.  Music is good for people.  No matter what state their mind is in or seems to be in.  When I am old and demented, I want people to play me music.  Because maybe something inside me will switch on, at least for a few moments.

For more information on music therapy and the project to bring ipods into nursing homes to help more residents, please check out Music & Memory.  They even have resources for caregivers!

Related posts: An Old Man and an iPod Shuffle (, The Magic That Is Music (, Power of Music (, Music: The Most Powerful Medicine In The World (, Music & Memory.


3 thoughts on “Don’t Forget the Lyrics: Music and Memory

  1. Trisha, when I taught school I always tried to write a song for important topics that were hard for some children to grasp. I even wrote a “Long Division Rap” once. When you can learn something through music, it always sticks. I’m glad to know that medicine sees the benefits of music. I’ll bet you know a lot of scriptures you aren’t aware of because a great many hymns and praise songs are based on scripture! Hope things are going well for you. Sandy

    • So true! Most of the scriptures I know are because of hymns or praise songs.
      Wow, a long division rap. Interesting. It sounds like a great idea!
      Take care!

  2. Pingback: How Music Affects the Brain and How You Can Use It to Your Advantage « Elder Advocates

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