Dr. Daniel Levitin Shares How Music Can Help Heal the Brain of Those With Dementia

Dr. Daniel Levitin

Chances are music is the soundtrack that accompanies many people’s lives. And according to award-winning neuroscientist and musician Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, it also has the power to remodel the brain of older adults. He will share his insight Tuesday, April 16 on the mainstage at the 2019 Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference in San Antonio.

“The brain can change itself and heal itself, and music is one of several ways we can do that,” he said.

How is this possible? Levitin describes the influence music has on the brain this way: “Any instrument requires muscle movement, even singing. Learning to move those muscles in precise and subtle ways, and to coordinate those movements so they happen at the right time in the right way is a great workout for the brain. it requires planning, listening to what you do and getting feedback, and updating what you’re doing in case the noise you made isn’t the noise you intended to make,” he said. “These neural feedback loops are a great exercise for the brain, and they require that you engage with your own body in ways that are constantly changing, and they also require that you engage with the outside world.”

Hearing a song can also connect people to the outside world and it can help them remember their past and get in touch with their emotions.

Incorporating Music Into Resident Care

Since music can be so beneficial to those with dementia,  Levitin suggests that senior living professionals incorporate music into their resident programming by making instruments available for them to learn and regularly play, even if it’s for as little as five minutes a day. The results of this access to musical instruments can be significant, a fact that Levitin observed with his own grandmother.

“My grandmother came to this country as an immigrant to escape persecution in her native country, and when she was 80, she told my mother and me that she sang ‘God Bless America’ every morning as soon as she woke up because America took her in,” he recalled. “We were so moved by this that we went out and bought her a little electronic keyboard. She didn’t know how to play, so we took pieces of masking tape and put them on the keys, and we put numbers on them so all she had to do was hit the keys in numeric order to play the melody. A year later, she had taken the masking tape off the keys because she learned what to press. She played that keyboard and sang every single morning until she died at 97. I have to think that her music making was a big part of what allowed her to live such a long life.”

According to Levitin, another way to make music a part of resident programming and care is to offer music therapy.

“Music therapy is the evidence-based use of music for therapeutic purposes, and it can assist in creating specific programs for specific [residents] and populations to help them meet their goals. Some examples of music therapy successes are with people suffering from brain damage—perhaps due to Alzheimer’s or other issues—who have lost the ability to speak,” said Levitin. “Melodic intonation therapy teaches them to sing some essential things, like ‘I need to go to the bathroom’ or ‘I’m thirsty’. They can sing these requests even when they can’t speak them because music uses a specialized pathway that speech doesn’t have access to.”

Continue to Explore this Topic

To find out more on the relationship between music and the brain, as well as how you can help residents through music, join us at the 2019 Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference.