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Support & Insight for the Autumn of Life

Alzheimer’s & The Power of Music

Dr. Oliver Sacks
Music's effect on the brain fascinated neurologist Oliver Sacks, MD. His research led him to helping people with Alzheimer's. Watch this best-selling author share how dementia, without exception, responds to music. (Video+Article)

Dr. Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology & Psychiatry, Columbia University:

Where I work at a hospital and at a number of old age homes, there are a lot of people who have Alzheimer’s or other dementias of one sort or another.

Some of them are confused, some are agitated, some are lethargic, some have almost lost language.

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But all of them, without exception, respond to music. This is especially true of old songs and songs they once knew.

These seem to touch springs of memory and emotion which may be completely inaccessible to them.

It is most amazing to see people who are out of it and sort of dark respond suddenly to a music therapist and a familiar song.

At first they will smile, then perhaps keep time, and then join in.

They sort of regain that time of their lives and that identity they had at the time of their lives when they first heard the song.

Who was Oliver Sacks?

Alzheimer’s expert Oliver Sacks was an eminent neurologist and acclaimed best-selling author. His remarkable career included a number of hugely popular books, including “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales” an exploration of unusual afflictions of the brain. He was best known for his book and film “Awakenings,” which became an Academy Award-nominated movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

He felt that the brain was the “most incredible thing in the universe” and therefore the most important to study.

Few people can claim to have made such a profound impact on the public understanding of the brain and its inner workings.

It is an amazing thing to see and, of course, to experience.

That sort of lucidity and pleasure can last for hours afterwards.

A common thing in Alzheimer’s is to lose one’s memory for events and to lose one’s biography, one’s personal memories. It seems they cannot be accessed directly. But personal memories are “embedded”, to some extent, in things like music. This is especially true about songs one knew, or which one learned, and especially songs which one sang.

So the past which is not recoverable in any other way seems to be sort of “embedded in amber”, if you will, in music. People can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while.

One does not have to be especially musical to respond to music, to recognize music, to react to music, emotionally.

Virtually everyone does, and they will continue to do so, despite a severe dementia.

In a severe dementia, one may have lost the power of language and may have lost most of one’s “event memory”, so one can remember very little of one’s past. But one will always remember songs one has heard and sung and familiar music.

The parts of the brain which respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion and mood.

So familiar songs will bring back memories, perhaps, of when the music was originally heard. It may have been an outing, something on Coney Island, the kids were there. All this which has been lost in amnesia will come back, as if it were embedded in a familiar song. It can come back.

In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past, you have lost your story, you have lost your identity to a considerable extent.

You can at least get some feel of it and regain it, for a little while, with familiar music.


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June 12, 2014 12:05 am

Mother was a music teacher, and she introduced all of us to the piano and classical music at early ages. She was able to play the piano throughout the progression of her Alzheimer's, until just a few wee ks before she died. Long after her vocabulary had shrunk to a few dozen words, she could still play the piano. And, she watched The Sound of Music once or twice a day for the last two years of her life. Each time she saw it, the story was new. And as the movie started with Julie Andrews singing in the meadow, mama would clap her hands with delight. I'd be happy to share a complimentary Kindle version of my book with you, Moving Mama; Taking Care of Mother During her Final Years with Alzheimer's.

Reply to  Unknown
July 4, 2016 10:35 am

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Steve Barwin
Steve Barwin
March 3, 2017 9:48 pm

For both sides.
Trying to understand Alzheimers with some distance in the form of time since the death of my father and it's still not clear to me. The song Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd somehow connects me to the confusing mystery of it all.

Me: What a thing to recede into your brain. To be pulled in with a force painfully slower and yet more forceful than that of gravity. And from the outside you're fading backwards.
Him: Your signal is getting low.
Me: Hello?
Him: Is there anyone out there?
Me: Is there anybody in there? Is there anybody home?
Him: Hello?
Me: Can you show me where it hurts? Our signals are crossing. You are only coming through in waves. Your lips move but I can't hear what you say.
Him: There is no pain, you are receding. You would not understand this. It's not how I am. I can only see out of the corner of my eyes. There is nothing on the horizon. I turn to look but you are gone. I cannot put my finger on it now.
Me: The child has grown, the dream is gone. I have become comfortably numb.

Alzheimers has changed you and I. There is a large crack in the foundation of my soul.
And still the nightmares have and will forever haunt me out in the corner of my eyes the way the disease haunted you.
Dad, the child is gone. He has have become comfortably numb.

August 31, 2018 2:24 am


Last edited 3 months ago by B. Berger
B. Berger

B. Berger

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