The Magic of Music and Memory

May 24, 2022

The Magic of Music and Memory

The effect of music on humanity is universal. Listening to a meaningful song can bring back a flood of happy emotions and memories for each of us. Moments frozen in time come back to life with every familiar sound, and we are transported back to a place that only we know. Music is a language we all know, and that speaks to all of us.

But what if music was even more powerful than we realized? What if music can actually improve memory, especially in those struggling to hold onto it? That was what the 2014 documentary Alive Inside decided to figure out. Alive Inside follows healthcare professionals across the world in a quest to help those suffering from memory loss in a healthcare system that appeared to be out of options for them.

What the documentary found was that music had a positive effect on those suffering from dementia and other memory loss. Patients listened to a personally curated series of songs and music made just for them, sounds meant to spark some of their happiest memories that were thought to be long forgotten to them. And it worked. The music helped the patients remember who they were, reawakening their sense of self that had slipped away as they sang along to the songs.

The findings of the documentary were considered groundbreaking at the time. We at Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS) decided to follow suit after the documentary aired, offering Music and Memory as one of our memory support programs to those in need in our community.

Music and Memory at JF&CS

Through the Music and Memory program at JF&CS, volunteers meet with the family and friends of a person who needs memory support. Based on input from their loved ones, volunteers create a special curated playlist designed to bring joy and happy memories to the person in need. The songs are then downloaded onto MP3 players with headphones, and patients are also provided with a speaker to listen to the music if the prefer.

The Music and Memory program at JF&CS started about seven years ago, and Geriatric Care Manager Georgia Gunter currently visits about 30 patients every year. Georgia said that in her experience, the Music and Memory program has helped calm symptoms of Sundown Syndrome in her clients. Sundown Syndrome is an unpleasant symptom of Alzheimer’s and dementia and includes insomnia, anxiety, pacing, hallucinations, paranoia, and confusion.

Georgia went on to describe an occasion where the Music and Memory program helped one of her clients: “I have a client who is only 62 with late-stage Alzheimer's that started when she was in her 40s, and who is non-verbal. But once I put on her music, which happened to be disco music that she loves, she went from being completely unresponsive and not even getting out of bed, to getting out of bed and dancing with me.”

“As a child of the 70s and early 80s, I feel so good when I listen to songs from my teens or early 20s,” Georgia said. “And it isn’t just me. You feel so good when you hear music from your youth, or from a first date, or your wedding song. These songs cause you to experience joy, and it does positive things for your brain.”

“I still remember one case in particular that moved me,” Georgia recalled. “It was one person, a daughter – we provided music for her mom. In her mom’s last few days on this earth, the daughter told me that the family spent the entire few days dancing and playing music until she passed. Her mom had a smile on her face. Instead of grim silence and crying, her last few days on earth were filled with peace, joy, and music with those she loved.”

Music and Memory is always looking for volunteers to help download and curate music for its participants. To learn more about Music and Memory, how you can help, or how you can get help for your loved ones, click the button below.