Music Therapy | Avalon Memory Care

Music Therapy

Music has a remarkable effect on those with dementia, and here at Avalon Memory Care, we love incorporating music into our activity programming. “It is clear that music does something magical that words cannot do at certain points in the dementia brain,” says Holly Bagwell, former Outreach Coordinator.

Part of our residential caregiving plan is professional music therapy. Like any other member on a resident’s healthcare team, these musicians are highly-trained in their field, which includes neuroscience principles and the use of melody and rhythm to activate brain function. Music therapists can determine the best songs and instruments based on an individual’s needs and health conditions.

“We have visiting music therapists join us for interactive sing-along time, invite residents to join in the music-making with percussion instruments, and put up a permanent activity at our Quarterway location we call the “Can you name them?” board.”

The board has names like Sammy, Frank, Elvis, Patsy, and Dolly, and residents are challenged to see if they can remember the artist’s names and music. The best part of the activity is when the staff pulls up a popular song from those artists. “Suddenly our residents remember their favorite songs and sing along!”

According to the National Institute on Aging studies, activities that can be both calming and stimulating, like music therapy, reduce reliance on medication and dementia behaviors like wandering, aggression, and restlessness.

Psychology Today reports that music therapy can even improve sleep and lower blood pressure. It can also be helpful in treating depression and it’s even beneficial for better communicating our wants and needs. Especially with those who are living with lapses in memory, music can reactivate some of the language and interactive areas of the brain.

How does this magic work? Here are 5 reasons why music is such a reliable therapy for people with dementia:

Music exercises strengthen people’s remaining aptitudes.

Music appreciation and aptitude remain active in the brain longer than other capabilities. According to the Mayo clinic’s Johnathan Graff-Radford, M.D., “Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.” This video is beautiful proof of how music unlocks moments that happened decades ago.

The brain stores musical learning as a procedural memory like many other routines and repeated actions. Dementia primarily affects episodic memory, or our memory of non-routine events, leaving much of the procedural memory intact.


Music awakens positive memories and emotions.

Who hasn’t heard an old song and been transported to the past? Musical memories are strong, partly because they’re tied to positive emotions, and the brain prioritizes emotional memories. Even a book of lyrics can reignite good times in a person’s memory. This large-print hymn book is created just for those living with dementia. To find a list of other “books you can sing,” check out Ft. Worth music therapy group, Heart and Harmony.

During her inspiring Tedx Talk, Board-Certified Music Therapist Erin Copeland Seibert says, “Music is the one of the only things in life that processes information on both sides of the brain at once.” From reading to moving to feeling, music is practically everywhere in our brains.


Music can reduce agitation, stress, and anxiety.

Music therapists often recommend classical, soft pop, and certain types of world music for anxiety and stress reduction. Slow jazz, atmospheric spa-like music, and nature sounds can also be soothing. If your loved one loves the beach, a sound machine with ocean waves might be the perfect gift they can use when relaxing and during bedtime. “We had a resident who wore headphones with music playing throughout the day,” said Holly Bagwell, “This was the only thing that kept her anxiety at bay.”


Music can encourage movement.

Getting enough movement in the day can be challenging for some Alzheimer’s patients. Clapping, dancing, hand motions, and playing hand-held instruments are all part of music therapy. To stimulate certain areas of the brain, music therapists are trained in and use a large variety of these instruments, like tambourines, percussion shakers, bells, drums, and ribbon wands. Research has even shown that by providing a catchy musical beat to walk to, a person living with Parkinson’s can move with a steadier gait.


Music encourages engagement with others.

For as long as people have made music, music has brought us together. Neuroscientist and musician, Alan Harvey, says, “Music is a social glue that clearly enhances our sense of mental well-being.” He says that the parts of the brain that include empathy, trust, and altruism are also the same parts that satisfactorily respond to the music we enjoy.

Music therapy encourages people to interact and engage in positive ways. People brighten up and sing together or share memories triggered by a familiar song.

According to Music Therapist and nationally-recognized neuroscience expert, Elizabeth Stegemöller, music increases dopamine production and, in turn, dopamine assists in making new brain connections. Professor Stegemöller also states that music therapy is unique in that “music can activate the entire brain” which allows for opportunities to connect through an “alternative pathway that is less affected by the disease.” A few ways this use of neuroplasticity helps patients express themselves is the clear signal that a beloved tune can send to the brain, plus the effect of a primal rhythm that’s inherently within humankind.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta says, “Music therapy helps speech, but also motor skills, memory and balance. Also emotionally uplifting.” Music can be joyful, life-affirming, and engaging, all the things we want most for our loved ones with dementia. Want to help your loved one enjoy more music? Dementia care experts advise building a playlist to enjoy together. Find popular music from your loved one’s era and experiment with different songs. Note their response to favorites and make a list of soothing melodies and stimulating songs. Experts suggest playing peaceful music during times that may be stressful, like mealtime, and upbeat music at times you want to help boost your loved one’s mood.


Here are a few more ways you can use the principles of music therapy to nurture your loved one:

  • Play pretty music—or their favorite songs from their teen and young adult years—and draw pictures or color together while listening.
  • Sing familiar Christmas and holiday songs they loved as a child.
  • Try your own guessing game. Play the first few measures of a song and have your parent start to sing the rest with you.
  • Make a playlist of theme songs from TV shows that they enjoyed watching.
  • If you have a piano or guitar available, perform some beloved songs together.


Licensed speech language pathologist and certified music therapist, Kathleen Howland, might have summed it up with this: “Not only do I get to work in the magic and power of music, the power in information that comes from science, but it’s all embedded in a clinical relationship that’s built on compassion, empathy, being of service to our fellow humans…it’s a really beautiful way to work.”

At Avalon Memory Care, we’re always looking for new experiences and therapies to engage our residents. If you’d like to take a tour and learn more about our unsurpassed level of care and music therapy, call us at (972) 364-4755.

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