Music’s Effect on Alzheimer’s

Dr. Connie Tomaino
Dr. Connie Tomaino

My interest in music and memory began during my music therapy internship at a small nursing home in Brooklyn in the fall of 1978. It was there that I witnessed firsthand the power of music to reach seemingly lost function in those with end stages of dementia. Individuals who I was told were completely unaware of their environments and no longer recognized loved ones showed dramatic responses to familiar music.   Lost attention became engaged attention, and soon their responses started to carry over beyond the music therapy sessions. In 1980, I became the full-time music therapist at the facility in the Bronx where Oliver Sacks’ “Awakenings” took place.  Dr. Sacks had observed how music, especially rhythm, could reanimate those with a Parkinson’s – like movement disorder.

Together, Oliver and I searched for answers.  Was music accessing deep rooted emotions, exciting lost memories, jump-starting parts of the brain into action?  It wasn’t until the mid ‘90s that we found scientists who could help us study these phenomena. Our Institute for Music and Neurologic Function was founded in 1995 as the bridge between the basic sciences and the clinical music therapy communities to bring new understanding of the power of music to awaken and heal.

One of the most important and complicated aspects of music perception is that it is processed throughout the brain including lower areas that are aroused automatically – allowing us to synchronize to a beat or get goosebumps  from a beautiful melody.  These responses occur without conscious thought, allowing for music to penetrate when processing “how to” has become a challenge. For life-long musicians there is an additional benefit. The motor skills of how to play a song become part of a deeper memory system and can be called upon even when short term memory starts to fade. Calling upon these well preserved skills in an active and creative way can have tremendous therapeutic benefit. This is exactly what I saw in Glen Campbell when I had the honor to meet with him and his wife Kim at the beginning of his final tour.

The family had concerns about whether the demands of a busy schedule would exhaust him and accelerate his dementia. I thought the opposite – that the active engagement in something he could still do successfully, that had meaning for him, that was “ a normal day” for him, would help preserve function for a longer period of time.

His support system was fantastic.  On stage, his band consisted of his own children, in particular Ashley,  who could provide the musical prompts and other assistance as needed. I was present at the first concert at Town Hall in New York City. Glen played and sang all his classics from memory, even taking extensive solos – which were all musically exquisite. Then there were the newer songs where he needed to glance at a teleprompter for the lyrics. What was striking, though, was what I observed six months later at another concert in his tour. During one of his new songs, as he got to the bridge section, he glanced over at Ashley and said “I love this part” – he was anticipating, thinking ahead  – a very difficult task for someone with dementia. Not only had being on the road – with all of its intense performance demands – preserve  Glen’s musical skills,  it helped him form new memories as well.

Concetta M. Tomaino, DA, LCAT, MT-BC
Executive Director, Co-founder
Institute for Music and Neurologic Function

Dr. Concetta M. Tomaino is a music therapist in the field of music therapy for individuals suffering the effects of stroke or other brain trauma or are afflicted with such degenerative neurological diseases as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Tomaino is the executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and senior vice president for music therapy at CenterLight Health System, formerly Beth Abraham Family of Health Services.