A Song of Myself: How Music Therapy Can Help Memory Loss and Depression

We are, all of us, a collection of our memories. Who we are is shaped by powerful forces, many of which are outside our control—economic, familial, historical, geographical—but we perceive ourselves entirely through the prism of what has happened to us. Faces, failures, triumphs, lovers and enemies, huge moments and those fleeting glimpses of the past are the items that create who we are. The day you got married and the day you first twirled to that song, underneath the stars or in some sweaty dance club: these are intrinsic to personality. It’s one of the reasons why memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s can be so devastating, and why those suffering from them can experience depression. They feel they are literally losing who they are.

New research shows, however, that it doesn’t have to be that way. These memories, these songs we sing of ourselves, are in our mind, just blocked by neural tangelments and plaque. While there is still much to learn, it seems that memories and personality can be brought back, even briefly. One of the most important ways to achieve this is through music, through the songs we have heard and loved. That’s why music therapy may be among the most powerful tools for fighting not only memory loss, but its attendant depression.

The Dance: Finding Who is in There

Think of a song that means a lot to you. It can have romantic connotations, it can be a popular song from that one summer, it can be a drinking song you sung while in the Navy, or anything. Whether it is Big Band or Big Bopper, BB King or the Beatles, music has a way of lodging in our mind and becoming intertwined with our emotions. It very nature plays with our brain, which is why some songs never leave your head, and you can sing along without having heard it for decades. (Don’t believe me? Think of a commercial from your childhood: I bet you remember the jingle better than your own phone number.)
The science of memory is still new, but there is a reason why these stick in our heads. There is research that says listening to music stimulates connections in the brain that are responsible for memory, which is why so many people listen to classical music while studying. Music doesn’t just stick in your head: it actively helps you remember things.
That’s why music can be such a key tool in unlocking memories. A familiar song can trigger memories long since dormant. Perhaps the best example of this is the stunning and beautiful documentary Alive Inside, which demonstrates how patients with advanced Alzheimer’s—people who don’t recognize anyone, some who haven’t so much as spoken in years—suddenly come alive when hearing songs from their younger years. They sing along and suddenly start talking about themselves, about memories long thought dead. There is lucidity, and more importantly, personality. The music doesn’t just trigger an autonomic response. It literally pulls them out of the darkness. It’s impossible to watch even the trailer without being tearfully and joyfully moved.

Music Therapy and Depression

Of course, there is still a long way to go for advanced cases. But while one day music might be able to restart a decaying brain, it can have a positive impact right now for people who are beginning to suffer memory loss and depression.
There are a few ways that music therapy can work. There is literal physical therapy: trying to sing, making music, helps with decision making, oral motor work, sequencing, communication choices, and a host of other valuable exercises. There is also the need to strengthen memory, to literally work it out, by using the proven memory-creating properties of music. In using music as a tool to strengthen memory, you can help people hang on to their identity and their sense of self for even longer, helping to alleviate depression.
Beyond that, there is what we talked about above: not just making memory the cognitive function stronger, but bringing back memories that were buried.
Think about it: if you hear a song you haven’t heard in 20 (or 30, 40, or 50) years, suddenly there is a swirl and you feel for a second like a younger you. Even without a tangible memory, there is a sensation, a jumble of half-formed perceptions, emotions, even certain tastes and smells that aren’t exactly concrete, but still impact you. If you really start to focus on it, you can maybe make some sense. “Oh yeah,” you think, “we sang along with that when we took a road trip to my friend’s uncle’s house on the beach. Who was that? Nate—and it was Nate’s Uncle Steve! He let us use the boat and left some beer in the fridge.”
That’s how memories work. They are an amalgamation of all our senses and they build on themselves, and suddenly it isn’t just that trip, but all your memories of Nate. A song can suddenly start weaving from the thinnest thread. That’s what makes it such a useful tool for caregivers and aging adults. Playing music, music that means something to them, isn’t just pleasant. It helps with the physical and chemical nature of memory, and in doing so, helps bring back the self that is the product of these remembrances.
This Proustian shuffle helps improve the quality of life of dementia patients and can help anyone who is beginning to suffer memory loss. Even before the memories start to be clouded by time and its handmaidens, playing music to an aging loved one is important. It helps to connect with them. It helps them connect with themselves. It is an opportunity to hear stories, to joke and laugh, to cry, and to recall that life is made up of these moments, seamless, even if they have briefly been forgotten. That’s how we make sure of who we are, and that’s how we show love. We listen, and we remember.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one suffering with memory loss, the compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help. Contact us to find out more.

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