“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship, “Beautiful Day” by U2 and “Promised Land” by the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) are just three of the songs on my “Favorite Songs of All Time” playlist. I started making this playlist after seeing the 2014 documentary, “Alive Inside.” The film details the healing power of music by following the journey of social worker Dan Cohen as he delivered pre-loaded iPods with personalized music to nursing home residents.
The transformation that Cohen witnessed was extraordinary. The residents who normally sat silently in a chair all day in a catatonic state suddenly became animated and started to sing. Men and women claiming to have no memories at all, began recalling their past. As cognition took over, in that moment the nursing home residents were no longer empty shells. Their blank stares were replaced with sparkling eyes filled with emotion.
The most important detail of the nursing home playlists is that they were specific to that individual. Family or friends supplied the information to Cohen, and in cases that no information was available the playlists were based on the top songs based on the patient’s age, occupation or previous interests, such as patriotic songs for veterans.
The research supports Cohen’s findings that a patient’s favorite songs are intact in a part of the brain that is still alive when all other communication and awareness seem irretrievably lost. Andrew Budson, associate director for research at Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, said, “there are currently two theories to explain the transformative effect of music on dementia sufferers. First, music has emotional content, and so hearing it can trigger emotional memories – some of the more powerful memories that we have.” These types of memories have the best chance of rising to the top in Alzheimer’s patients.
Secondly, we learn to store music as “procedural memory,” the type of learning associated with routines and repetitive actions. Dementia primarily destroys a different part of the brain responsible for episodic memory, which corresponds to events in our life.
In general, the beneficial properties of listening to music transcend all health status designations and all generations. In short, young or old and healthy to moribund, music is an incredible gift. Music can enhance communication. Singing songs together fosters a closeness that is hard to define but easy to feel. Holding hands while listening to favorite songs can provide an opportunity to reconnect.
Music can be used to set a mood. Play stimulating background music at mealtime or other daily activities to promote wakefulness. Play relaxing music to see if it can help create a calming atmosphere and diffuse any tense situations. Music is an excellent way to promote exercise from dancing to making music by beating on drums or using other percussion instruments or bells.
Music reduces stress and depression. A meta-analysis of 400 studies validated the many health benefits of listening to music, including lowering of the stress hormone cortisol. In one study reviewed, patients about to undergo surgery who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol levels than people who had taken drugs. The analysis determined that music had documented positive effects on brain chemistry and associated mental and physical health benefits in the following four areas: mood, stress reduction, immunity boost and social bonding.
Music therapy is a growing field and music therapists require knowledge in psychology, medicine and music. Research is showing that music therapy can improve health outcomes in a wide variety of populations, from premature infants and children with autism, ADHD or developmental and learning disabilities, to people with emotional trauma, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, acute and chronic pain, depression, Parkinson’s disease and more.
With all these amazingly beneficial properties of music, I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes fall into a music-less rut. I just get out of the habit. I am sure this also happens to other baby boomers. We talk on our mobile phones in the car, listen to news and podcasts all day. We love our audible books.
Can you imagine the following events without music: a religious service, a party, a wedding, a graduation or professional ball game? Make your playlist, turn up the volume and dance or you can tap your foot, nod your head – and thank me all at the same time.
Bob Roth is managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions.