Musical awakenings for those living with dementia

Written by Active Minds on Tuesday the 13th of December 2016.



Music has long been shown to have a positive effect on those living with dementia. Nothing demonstrates this more than an unlikely internet star, Henry, an elderly alzheimer’s patient from America. Henry appears in the documentary, Alive Inside, which follows Dan Cohen, a social worker, as he creates personalised playlists for elderly care home residents. Dan is hoping to connect them to the music they used to love. In one scene we see Henry, hunched over, barely communicating, but then headphones are given to him and the music begins. The transformation is remarkable, Henry starts singing, humming and moving his body. Even after the music has ended he is alert, engaged and answering questions.

This perfectly illustrates the positive effect that music can have, but what is it about music that helps people living with dementia?

Trigger Memories

Music is incredibly emotive, listening to just one piece of music can bring you flying back to a moment in time. You are often able to remember everything else that surrounded that memory; the sounds, the smells, the people etc. This power that music has to trigger memories is incredibly beneficial for people living with dementia as it encourages conversation and elicits feelings of happiness and joy as they listen to the music and reminisce. This power is further highlighted when we look at how music is processed in our brains. When we learn music we store the information in our ‘procedural memory’ (associated with repetition and routines). Dementia primarily destroys our ‘episodic memory’ (specific events in our lives) leaving our ‘procedural memory’ intact, thus the memory of music remains.

Agitation Management

People living with dementia, especially late stages, can become agitated, often when frustrated or bombarded with too much external stimuli. Engaging them in a musical activity like singing, or rhythm playing, can diffuse this emotion and encourage them to focus, thus reducing their agitation and helping their mood.

Musical Appreciation    

Musical appreciation and aptitude are one of the last abilities that remain in people living with dementia, therefore it is a brilliant way to stay connected and engage with someone who is living with dementia.


As dementia progresses, people can often lose the ability to share emotions, physically however, they are often still extremely capable. Being able to dance to music is a wonderful way for a person living with dementia to illustrate the emotions they are no longer able to vocalise. They are able to hug, kiss and touch, helping them feel connected and secure with their dance partner.