The Brains Are Alive With the Sound of Music

Last weekend I attended a Sound of Music Singalong at the Music Box Theater in Chicago.  When I walked through the double doors into the theater, I was given a bag of goodies: plastic Edelweiss to hold up during the song, an invitation to the ball, and a popper that we were instructed to pop when Maria and Captain Von Trapp kissed for the first time.  I was struck by the age range of the audience, everyone from graying old ladies to young men to children, with some people even in costume!  With the exception of one sullen teenager in a hoodie slouched down in his seat next to me, everyone seemed to be excited.  I figured only a couple of extra-enthusiastic people would really sing, so I was pleasantly surprised when Maria came running over the beautiful green Austrian mountain and all my neighbors started passionately belting out “the hills are alive!”  Everyone was singing.

I wondered, what is it that compels people of all ages, races and genders to pile into a theater on a Sunday afternoon and sing for over three hours?  What is it about music that so inspires and excites people?  This is a question that has gripped neuroscientists all over the world, and recent research has started to provide some answers.

To process music, the nervous system needs to engage a large number of regions starting with the intricate structures in the inner ear, which translate sounds into electrical activity that can be sent into the brain.  Neuroimaging work has shown that once the signal enters the brain, it creates widespread neural activity (as seen in the diagram below), resulting in strong emotional responses.


Mysteriously, it has been repeatedly reported that patients with advanced dementia, who may have lost the majority of their long-term memories and even language capabilities, show preserved musical ability and response.  It is possible that because of the widespread effects of music on the brain, including areas that are more spared in Alzheimer’s disease, listening to music may be able to awaken and even preserve cognition by accessing memory through alternate pathways.

Can music help dementia patients?

This is the question that Michael Rossato-Bennett addresses in his award winning documentary Alive Inside (available on Netflix streaming).  He takes us on the journey of social worker Dan Cohen as he fights a broken healthcare system and illustrates music’s unique ability to fight memory loss in dementia patients.  We are told the stories of Henry (see video here) and many other individuals whose responses to music are breathtaking, miraculous transformations from quiet shells into animated characters singing, moving to the beat and tapping into memories going all the way back to early childhood.  It provides a gripping view of the unexpected effects of music on patients that were otherwise considered lost to dementia.

As Alive Inside points out, dementia is no small problem.  There are 5 million people in America with dementia, and 10 million people spend a large part of their life caring for them.  There are maybe a million people in nursing homes, slowly losing their connection to life.

“Music gives us a way to reach someone who may otherwise be unreachable.  It creates spontaneity that you cannot create in an institution.  It takes you to a place where you can leave and go off to a world that you create and connect with on your own terms.  There is no pill that does that.”

And the neuroscience backs this up.  In one study done on Alzheimer’s patients, those that listened to “Big Band” music from the 1920’s and 1930’s had better autobiographical memory recall.  In another study, Vande Winckel and colleagues showed that when exercise was combined with music (polka, folk and country), mental exam test scores increased and having Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played while taking cognitive tests seems to enhance performance.

Listening to music is a low-cost, noninvasive treatment that has been shown effective in study after study, and it has no side-effects!  Yet, this information has not been implemented or utilized on a large scale in nursing homes.

Dan Cohen’s mission is to change that, by bringing personalized music to people suffering from dementia all over the country.  When he embarked on this journey in 2006, Dan found that none of the 16,000 long-term care facilities in the U.S. used iPods for their residents.  Today Dan’s work has helped provide personalized music programs to hundreds of nursing homes throughout the country.  His success demonstrates the power of technology and how it can be used to not only treat symptoms, but deeply connect with a person’s heart and soul to give them back some joy and purpose.

We can still bring life to those people who have been forgotten.  We do have something to give.  All we have to do is ask, “What is your favorite song?”


Dedicated to my incredibly talented friend Jennifer Mitchell, whose love for music has always inspired me.


“Brain Music.” Brain Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014. <;

Lin, Shuai-Ting, Pinchen Yang, Chien-Yu Lai, Yu-Yun Su, Yi-Chun Yeh, Mei-Feng Huang, and Cheng-Chung Chen. 2011. “Mental Health Implications of Music: Insight from Neuroscientific and Clinical Studies.” Harvard Review Of Psychiatry (Taylor & Francis Ltd) 19, no. 1: 34-46.Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 9, 2014).

Lord TR, Garner JE. Effects of music on Alzheimer’s patients.  Percept Mot Skills 1993;76:451–5.

“Our Mission and Vision – Music and Memory.” Music and Memory. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014. <;

Thompson RG, Moulin CJ, Hayre S, Jones RW.  Music enhances category fluency in healthy older adults and Alzheimer’s disease patients.  Exp Aging Res 2005; 31:91-9.

Van de Winckel A, Feys H, De Weerdt W, Dom R. Cognitive and behavioural effects of music-based exercises in patients with
dementia. Clin Rehabil 2004;18:253–60.


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