There Is No Magic Music For Alzheimer's Disease

As the word gets around that music can make a huge difference for people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, I keep hearing more and more people want to know how to use music effectively – therapeutically, even – with their loved ones who have dementia. In addition, there are more and more companies every day selling CDs and mp3s and apps designed especially for people with dementia. How do you even know where to start? Knowing that there is a lot of confusing information out there, way more than any caregiver could expect to take in, let me boil it all down to one point:

There is no magic music.

In other words, you don’t have to worry about finding that single CD, DVD, playlist, or program that will definitely “work” for your loved one. What’s more, the music you already own may be all that you need for using recorded music for various purposes. Something that has emerged from many years of music therapy research and practice is that relationship matters a lot in music therapy and caregiving through music. When you are bringing music into the caregiving relationship for a person with dementia, you need to pay special attention to two relationship factors:
  • The listener’s relationship with the music
  • How you relate to your care recipient during the music
We’ll look at those two factors in the next two posts in this series, so you can learn a few more ways to make music a valuable part of your caregiving routine. Yes, there are some tips and tricks to learn, but before we get to those, I want you to know this:

Step 1: Trust your intuition.

You already have a relationship with your care recipient, and you know your loved ones better than anyone else. So, if you find something that “works” – helps to establish a routine, or calm someone down, or encourage exercise – then by all means, keep doing it! As a music therapist for people with dementia, I spend a significant chunk of time talking with family caregivers about the music and musical experiences that hold meaning for the person I’m seeing as a client.

You already know this stuff.

What I can help you do is take this knowledge to the next level, using what you already know in a more intentional way. (We can also problem-solve those situations when it seems like *nothing* works.) So, we’ll dig deeper in the next two posts, but until then, all you have to do is share the music that already is important and meaningful with your loved one. What music have you already found that “works” for your loved one with dementia? Please share your discoveries below! This is the first of a three-part series. Click to read part two and part three.]]>


  1. Rick Nicholson on June 10, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    I would offer that music does, in certain instances, affect the brain and evoke interesting feedback from the one bearing the burden. I, by God’s grace and the companionship of a wonderful LBCC staff, continue to personally witness positive changes with a steady schedule of live music amongst the residents I work for.

    • soundscapemusictherapy on June 10, 2013 at 5:07 pm

      Hi Rick!

      Being a music therapist, I have no doubt that music can have positive effects on people. “Music” is a really big category, though, and what hasn’t been demonstrated in research is the existence of “magic music,” or one particular song/genre/CD that can be prescribed for a particular ailment. In other words, a music therapist would never say, “take two Beethoven symphonies and call me in the morning!”

      I am so glad that you are seeing benefits for the people in your community, and I hope these posts will help you and other professionals continue to find meaningful ways to integrate music into caregiving.

  2. Diane on June 14, 2013 at 9:24 am

    I agree that there is no one “magic music.” Having used music in a congregate living setting with my residents, it has been a challenge at times finding music that is at least acceptable for all in hearing distance as opposed to relaxing for some and annoying for others. I finally ended up with a mixed-bag playlist that I use on my phone and keep on my med-cart so that if someone either says or shows that what is playing is annoying them, I can skip to the next track quickly until I find something that all nearby seem to find enjoyable/relaxing.

    • soundscapemusictherapy on June 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      That’s a really good practice, Diane. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Mary on June 27, 2013 at 12:13 am

    Music is a magical connection to those with dementia…I have found that in order to make a true connection, it is important to know the music that they connected to, in their younger days (if possible, of course, with help of family). One case I will always remember..a woman who hadn’t spoken in years, hadn’t reacted to any stimulation, she was in a wheelchair with amputations of both legs…had to be fed…total care. One day, music was played, which was popular during her younger days…she instantly went from being totally unreachable to a person in a wheelchair, smiling, humming and moving to the music. When the music stopped, it appeared that she was “lost” again. It was one of the most moving moments I have experienced. Although we often feel that we cannot reach others lost in dementia, music is such a great connection…and in my opinion, just goes to show that they are aware of words that are spoken to them, even though they may not be able to respond. It is so very important to continue to treat them as the human beings that they are.

    • Rachelle Norman on June 27, 2013 at 9:05 am

      That’s a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing!

      I think the very cool thing is that neurological research is now showing us WHY music works this way, and it’s not magic at all – it’s real.

      I also completely agree with you that we must treat our folks with dementia with the utmost respect, even if they can’t speak to us. Thank you for making that important point!

  4. christopher J Johnson, Ph.D. on June 28, 2013 at 7:24 am

    There is music persons with dementia enjoy more than other music. Moroever, there are some kinds of music that agitate persons with dementia. That would be my two cents worth to this discussion.

    • soundscapemusictherapy on June 28, 2013 at 7:32 am

      Yes, I agree; however, it’s highly individualized. We can only start with general ideas (e.g. music from their youth) then continue the discovery process from there.

      • Terry Woodford on July 10, 2013 at 9:48 am

        My research backed Heartbeat lullabies are not magic, but they have been played in over 8000 hospitals and special care centers to calm infants, children and adults. The VA, assisted centers and military care providers have discovered the same therapeutic music CD comforts people suffering from Insomnia, PTSD, Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Chronic pain. The same HeartbeatLullabies is also played in over 2500 animal rescues and clinics to calm anxious barking dogs. Here is a free down load to add to your arsenal.

        • soundscapemusictherapy on July 10, 2013 at 8:53 pm

          Hi Terry,

          Thank you so much for your kind offer to sample your music! I have no doubt that people have found solace in your beautiful music.

          I hope you would agree, though, that having a particular set of music played in lots of places doesn’t mean that it is the best music for any given individual. I am sure that many people have found comfort in other musical pieces, too, whether it’s Beethoven piano sonatas or Pink Floyd.

          I would also be very curious to know what kind of research support you have for your lullaby music. Would you mind posting references here? Thanks!

Leave a Comment