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Musical Notes with Melissa: Music Listening

Melissa Pate

Is there more to music listening than just…listening? I’m sure most of us saw the 2014 documentary, Alive Inside: The Story of Music and Memory, which drove awareness of the “psychosocial and emotional benefits of music for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s,” says Amy Clements-Cortes. Clements-Cortes is a music therapist and psychotherapist, as well as a researcher and professor at the University of Toronto. What we see in the documentary is a person who seems to “awaken” when he hears his favorite music on an iPod. He remembers song lyrics and has an emotional response to the song. How and why did this happen?

Clements-Cortes explains, “The reason music listening works so well here is because the person who prepared the music listening opportunity found music that had positive connections and meaning to Henry. As a result, Henry responds progressively. However, because response-triggering associations to music are individually learned, selecting the right music is not an easy task. Just because someone likes a particular artist or style of music, does not mean we can easily pick the right songs for them to have the same response as Henry did. Further, there is issue with putting headphones on a person with dementia and leaving them alone to listen to music. They cannot tell you to take off the headphones, ask to have the music stop, or be validated if they start to cry or have a negative reaction to the music when a caregiver is not present. Music is a social experience, and it is more beneficial to sit and listen to music together when a person has dementia, while engaging them in discussion or movement to maximize the potential of this intervention.”

In other words, music listening opportunities can have benefits in and of itself, but it is better when carefully planned and supervised by someone who can manage and guide the various responses that may occur.

For more information on music therapy or brain wellness, contact Melissa Pate at