Lamy Center Caregiver Connection: Dementia and Music

Written By: Rudi Lamy, MLS, MAS, consultant to the Peter Lamy Center on Drug Therapy and Aging

On July 21, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, known professionally as the singer and painter Tony Bennett, passed away at the age of 96. A few years ago, Mr. Bennett announced a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. Reports of his passing said that though he could not remember names, he remembered his music (Popa et al., 2021).

The facility where my wife is being cared for has musical acts once a week, sometimes twice. The residents respond to the music with clapping, foot tapping, and sometimes singing. There is even one resident who gets out of their chair and transforms into a dancing machine.

Facility staff encourage the residents to participate in the musical festivities.

The head of the nursing staff tells me that she has seen music improve a resident’s morale, their desire to speak, and even their appetite. She also referenced the rehabilitation of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who, after being shot in the head, used music to rewire her brain.

There does seem to be a visceral connection between the mind and music, often with a positive response, and it is incredible to see.

My Wife and the Great American Songbook

The Great American Songbook refers to a canon of American popular songs and enduring jazz standards written mainly during the first half of the 20th century. The Songbook is not a physical book, nor is there one definitive list of songs, songwriters, and performers included in its “pages.” Rather, it is a loosely defined canon of influential songs written by professional songwriters, including those in vaudeville and the Tin Pan Alley songwriting industry, largely for Broadway shows, other types of musical theatre, and Hollywood musicals.

The bulk of the songs were written between 1920-1960 and have been performed and enjoyed by generation after generation, long after they were first written. Among the Songbook’s gatekeepers are the Great American Songbook Foundation and the American Songbook Preservation Society. (Britannica online)

The response I most often see from my wife is for music dated between 1930 and 1970. This music has rhythm, melody, harmony, and sometimes syncopation. She prefers music which has a moderate volume. The age or era of the performers does not seem to matter at all, so Manhattan Transfer, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr., and Nina Simone are all equal in her mind.

She has differing responses to live music and recorded. She has an old MP3 player with more than five hours of recorded music on a loop that has a calming effect. Live music, however, produces a participatory effect. She taps her hands, moves her feet, and sings along, sometimes with my encouragement, often without.

“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens,” said Maria von Trapp, the inspiration for The Sound of Music.

You would be surprised how much literature has been published about music and dementia. So much, in fact, that the readings below are just a fraction of what was found.

As always, thanks for reading.


Readings Online

Found in the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) library catalog:

When the search is expanded to the entire USM consortium, you find many more citations. Some of the top results include:

Music and dementia Google Books search:

PubMed search for review articles:

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