The Music Is Still There: Music Therapy and Memory

How Caregivers Can Harness the Restorative Power of Music Therapy


When the world shut down in March of 2020, for a while live music stopped, too. Many musicians lamented that “Music is who I am, and now I have nothing.” Perhaps during the Pandemic, most of us appreciated the talents of all musicians more than we had before. But how much do we as caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or other neurological diseases know about the music stored in our brains and how most of us will “have it” until our brain function stops completely?

Although I’d heard accounts of how some people with Alzheimer’s had a seemingly miraculous restoration of memories, speech and even movement when given the chance to listen to familiar music from their past, I knew very little about the science behind those temporary breakthroughs. I did have one personal experience that touched me deeply and made me want to learn more.

Singing with Margaret


While sitting at the bedside of my 93-year-old friend who was dying and hadn’t spoken for more than a day, I took her hand and began talking about the experiences we’d had leading music for our church congregation. With her eyes still shut, she said softly, “I miss the hymns.” I began singing some familiar hymns and was joined by her hospice nurse. Soon Margaret was singing some phrases of the music with us. She couldn’t remember all the words, so she lamented, “I can’t sing anymore.” With tears rolling down my cheeks, I said, “Margaret you are singing! Keep singing with us.” Accompanied by recorded hymns on the nurse’s phone, we sang together for about 20 minutes, until Margaret drifted off again. Even though she couldn’t talk, Margaret’s music was still “Alive Inside.”

Alive Inside: The Story of Music and Memory

I’ve seen the documentary “Alive Inside: The Story of Music and Memory.” Released in 2014, it won awards at the Sundance Film Festival. It documents the dramatic results of the Music & Memory℠ program, created by Dan Cohen. Using personalized playlists of a person’s favorite songs loaded on an iPod, this and similar programs continue to be refined, successfully reawakening memory and even speech, at least temporarily, in many people suffering with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive and physical disabilities. People with Parkinson’s and other disorders that affect movement can often move more easily and with a steadier gait when listening to music that has a distinct beat.

Learning About and Using Music Therapy in Caregiving at Home

During that first year of COVID-19, the symptoms of my husband’s Alzheimer’s disease steadily got worse. I began researching ways to keep him occupied as it became increasingly difficult for him to read, write on his computer and even to operate the remote control on the television. I wish I’d known more about the Association of Music Therapists. In some locations they sponsor choirs for people suffering with dementia. Dennis loved to sing and had been a member of the Utah Symphony Chorus for many years. I knew the music was still alive inside of him. I just didn’t know how to use music as an intervention or what resources were available to help me.

A very enjoyable and accessible tool I found that helped me to learn more about how music is stored in and affects the brain was to listen to music therapist Emily Christensen’s UGEC (Utah Geriatric Education Consortium) Fireside Chat, titled “Music, Your Partner in Caregiving.”  It’s definitely worth and hour of your time. Caregivers in North Dakota can find additional helpful resources by visiting Music Therapy Association of North Dakota | Facebook or #musictherapyforall.

Aids to Using Playlists at Home

MusicMemoryIf you would like to know how to create a personalized playlist for someone you are caring for, you can find a free guide on the Music and Memory website. Along with other tips, they recommend creating a 20-30 list of top songs from when the person was 15-25 years old.

There is knowledge and skill involved in using playlists successfully. For detailed research and basic information on music listening programs, click on the AMTA’s Guidelines for Music Listening Programs. For a shortened version check out their Jan. 2014 Press Release: Setting the Record Straight: What Music therapy Is and Is Not.

How to Find a Music Therapist

Is there someone in your care who would benefit from the power of professional, personalized music therapy? The best resource for finding a North Dakota board-certified music therapist is by going to the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) website. Click on the “Find a Therapist” tab on the far right corner of the website. You can search by name, state, or even certification number!

Music therapy’s benefits for those with various forms of dementia and even Parkinson’s disease have proved beneficial to the point where, in some cases, it is covered by insurance when administered by a Board-Certified (MT-BC) music therapist. At the very least, it can provide hours of enjoyment for those who have very few memories other than the music from their past.

One More Example: Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

KeyboardTony Bennett has been quite open about his struggles with Alzheimer’s. Perhaps you saw the 2021 TV documentary special, One Last time, where Bennett and his good friend Lady Gaga were able to perform whole sets of his music all from memory, a memory with so many challenges that Bennett hadn’t said her name for a long time—until he walked out on to the stage and saw her waiting there for him. She could hardly control her tears. His music was still there, and it triggered the memory of her name, too.

If You Want to Become Licensed

In order to obtain a license to practice as a music therapist in North Dakota, an application must be made to the State Board of Integrative Health Care. The application must be upon the form adopted by the board and must be made in the manner prescribed by the board. For more information Visit

Dakota Home Care is North Dakota’s top choice for a full continuum of in home care services for residents of all ages. We offer both medical and non-medical home health aide, as well as skilled nursing services. We invite you to contact us any time for help with the specific challenges you’re facing, and to allow us the opportunity to recommend a solution. We are here for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with compassionate, professional home care services in Lincoln, Mandan, Fargo, and Bismarck.



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