e all know, even without reading research papers, that music has emotional benefit: it can excite and calm and induce a wonderfully cathartic weeping session. This applies whether you’re healthy or sick; whether you have Parkinson’s or autism or Alzheimer’s.

But studies have found that music can also be of cognitive benefit: it helps people remember things better.

What exactly does this mean, and what specifically does it mean for an Alzheimer’s patient? Does it mean that if you play the oldies station in the background all the time, your Mom will wake up one day and remember everything again?

Let’s look at the evidence:

First of all, "music" is a pretty general term. Are we talking about singing? Playing a guitar? Listening to Mozart? Listening to Bobby McFerrin’s improvisational jazz? Believe it or not, these are all different things.

According to a study reported by Time Magazine,("Music on the Brain")

Different networks of neurons are activated [in the brain], depending on whether a person is listening to music or playing an instrument, and whether or not the music involves lyrics.

In another study, quoted in Neuroscience for Kids,

researchers have recorded neuronal activity from the temporal lobe of patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. During this study, awake patients heard either a song by Mozart, a folk song or the theme from "Miami Vice". These different kinds of music had different effects on the neurons in the temporal lobe.

Also, from Time'“Music on the Brain”

Experimental Audiology in Germany has shown that intensive practice of an instrument leads to discernible enlargement of parts of the cerebral cortex, the layer of gray matter most closely associated with higher brain function.

As you can see, different music affects different parts of the normal brain in different ways.

People are always studying the music-brain connection, trying to understand the mystery of it. There was a particular study done in 1993 that tried to see if music affected memory. The researchers used a song by Mozart for their experiment, and their results seemed to show that this composer’s music improved test-taking. This became widely known as The Mozart Effect, and people started playing Mozart to their unborn babies thinking it would give them a head start in learning.

Though later studies failed to duplicate the Mozart Effect (perhaps the only real effect is that Mozart helps relax the body right before a test), that original research sparked further research into music-as-memory-aid. A recent study, for example, found that Alzheimer’s patients can remember new information if it is sung to them much better than if it is spoken (as opposed to healthy people who can remember it equally well when sung as opposed to spoken).

We also know without reading studies that music helps trigger old memories. For example, when I hear the song "Dust in the Wind," I am immediately transported back to our family van as we drove across the country in 1977. I remember my oldest sister introducing this song to me, and how it resonated with the angst of my teenage years, etc. A whole cascade of memories brought on by a single song.

In a study reported by the Telegraph in 2009, researchers found that this recall effect is due to the fact that music is processed in the same area of the brain that forms vivid memories. They furthermore found that such memories appear to be immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And this could lead to a unique kind of therapy:

Because memory for autobiographically important music seems to be spared in people with Alzheimer’s disease, …making a "soundtrack of someone’s life" before their mind is too damaged, and playing it back to them could help form a resistance to the disease.

Love the idea! Plus I have a variation on this idea from watching this next video of Bobby McFerrin (at a conference called "Notes and Neurons"), and from observing Mom as I play the piano. First, here’s Bobby:

What Bobby is doing here is getting the mind to go in a familiar direction (the pentatonic scale), then leaving an auditory blank and letting the mind fill it in. I mean, aside from jumping around, that's what he's doing. He’s giving the mind a puzzle to solve. He’s making the mind work. And working the mind is better than not working the mind if you want to keep it.

The next part of my idea came from playing the piano for Mom and watching her reaction. You should know Mom hasn’t spoken but a few words in a couple years, and she no longer sings intelligible tunes. You should also know that I don't play the piano. I used to when I was seven, but now my playing is reduced to guessing the notes with my right hand. I can play fast enough for the tune to be recognizable. Barely. Fortunately for Mom, the tune is always a hymn—something she is very familiar with. Unfortunately for Mom, I mangle the tune. And that's where the puzzle comes in.

See, when my finger's can't find the right note, Mom gets exasperated and sings it out loud to help me find the dang thing. I'm even wondering if this puzzle-solving exercise is a factor in Mom's recent awakening.

So here is my variation on the soundtrack idea. Try this exercise (for an Alzheimer’s patient) with the following video clip:

Play it once. It will probably be familiar to the listener already, but there are enough repetitions in this piece that parts of it will quickly become familiar if they aren’t already. Play the video again, but pause the video every so often. There are a ton of repeated theme snippets. Pause before a theme is repeated and see if the listener is prompted to supply the missing piece. If they do, you've got a good puzzle to use.

Then, if you do this with that "Life Playlist", you should be able to double the benefit in fighting that Alzheimer’s monster.

Related Posts:
Music and Caregiving—Pandora to the Rescue
Alzheimer’s and Music: Stimulating the Brain into Action
Related articles:
Posit Science Blog, Your Brain on Jazz
American Music Conference, Music and the Brain