I studied the music-evoked autobiographical memory in higher education. This has been the research topic of my life and what has been fascinating me all through it. The phenomenon will always be interesting to me. However, I wanted to share the documentary that inspired me to take my higher education to the Alzheimer’s disease population http://www.aliveinside.us/#land. I am so grateful for this documentary because I saw the haven that sound could be for a person with Alzheimer’s disease.
I have not posted anything on this website since early 2020. I have been handling the pandemic. As a world, I think we have all been coping. As a Roman Catholic, I am celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection this weekend. I just realized there is so much to celebrate.
We have survived thus far. Let’s give ourselves a hand.
I am reaching out my hand because there is a chance that you might be able to visit a relative or friend with Alzheimer’s disease. You might work in a field where you find yourself surrounded by persons with dementia. I have compiled a general list of songs. These can get you started to make that personalized playlist that might bring smiles and peace to your particular loved one.
So as we rise from the ashes, I hope and pray we bring the music to the people who need it.
I had never seen it in my life, the elation in a group of older adults while listening to a familiar song. These older adults had chronic illnesses and conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It was striking: the gift that a singer, a music lover, or a dancer would bring to a group and the therapy they would provide for their peers. There was one person who sang so beautifully that everyone would listen. There was one person that would just rise and then pull someone else to dance. There was one person who got up without a walker, and I had to rush to hold her hands and dance with her. There was one person who danced like a teenager while holding one of my hands. She always repeated, “And I’m 90 years old!” There was one person who got up, even though she recently had hip surgery. I had to rush to stand beside her. “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King has more meaning. The song reminds me of the moments that I first beheld the power of music.
I have found the game “Name That Tune” is well-suited for persons with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. I’m just offering a few tips if you decide you want to pursue this avenue with a group of more than 15 people.
- You can’t please everyone. Before you use “Name That Tune” to engage a large group, the best case scenario is that you are familiar with the persons in the audience. This means, you have conducted interviews with them and you are familiar with their favorite songs. If there is a wide age range in the audience, you will definitely find the younger individuals may not be interested. The best way to hold interest is to know the genre that appeals to the audience. If you have, at least, the right musical genre, that music will be sufficient to hold their attention.
- This is not the time for trial and error. The optimal time to explore music with persons with dementia is when you are working with smaller groups, or with an individual. This is when you can test songs and observe responses. For instance, in the afternoons you want to mitigate agitation and increase peaceful feelings. A song dud may work against that scenario. For larger groups, you may want to bring out what I call “the big guns” or “the tried and true” (You can refer to another post – https://throwbax.com/2019/10/30/top-15-calming-songs-to-play-for-a-group-of-persons-with-dementia/). Of course there are always exceptions, but I’d go to calming songs for the afternoon, and the “safe picks”, for instance:
- Try to play the song all the way through. Unless an individual is extremely bothered or distressed by the music, play the complete song. Usually persons in the group are enjoying the music, and when it gets cut, they may lose focus. It might enter your mind that they appear sleepy or bored, and you might have the urge to change the song. Try your best to keep the song playing.
- People will leave. If it is late in the day, for some, it will be time to go home. When one person leaves the group, this will possibly lead to a domino effect. You’ll have more people looking at the clock, wondering when they will be able to leave, and asking when their ride is coming. If you’re lucky, you will have an enthusiastic member in the group. This is the group’s anchor. As long as this person is there, the group will usually remain happy.
- Some people will come out of their shell. This is the time to encourage these individuals. Call them out, dance with them, or make them the center of attention. Socialization is important, and you are providing them increased social stimulation.
- Recharge your batteries. Make sure your devices, usually phone and speaker, are recharged. Imagine the buzzkill when the music shuts off. You don’t want to be there.
- Be aware that people may also get tired of music. Usually a 30-minute session is good. If you can do a one-hour session, that is great. If you can do longer than a one-hour session, that is awesome. However, don’t expect everyone to be engaged for longer than 45 minutes. Also keep in mind that “Name That Tune” is not the best game if the individuals had already done a music-related activity earlier in the day.
It is possible that we may not feel anything when we listen to a song. Music does not arouse an emotional response at all times (Juslin & Laukka, 2004). When thinking about what music arouses a strong emotional response, think about buying a concert ticket.
When you buy that ticket, you have a target of hearing particular songs. Have you ever attended a concert and the artist, or band, started playing a new song that you have never heard before? Compare and contrast the crowd response to the new song versus the song that the crowd is familiar with.
The most recent concert I attended was the Alejandro Sanz concert in October of this year. My twin sister bought me a ticket as an early Christmas present (thank you!), and we definitely attended to hear this song:
We were sitting next to a Latin woman and her boyfriend. Mind you, we are not Latin, we are Filipino. When Alejandro Sanz closed his concert with Corazón Partió and we heard those opening notes, we screamed our lungs out with her. Then we yelled the whole song out loud together. A complete stranger – but for those few minutes, we were the best of friends.
To me, that illustrates the difference between hearing a familiar song and a novel song. When conducting experiments, it could be the difference between a self-selected song and an experimenter-selected song.
There is music that an individual has repeated, so that the individual memorizes every word or event in the song. In this process, the song can become personally relevant and meaningful. It can also be tied to the individual’s life experience. Memories that are less susceptible to brain damage are memories that are rehearsed more (De Simone et al., 2016). Perhaps listening to songs repeatedly contributes to the rehearsal of particular memories. This may make these memories stronger in the mind.
When thinking about connecting others to their own biographies, epochs, ages, time periods, and treasured moments through music, cogitate on them being there once again. This person’s footprints have scaled the decades. This person has encountered friends, faced trials, laughed, cried, failed, and succeeded.
Music tells the story of our footprints, the highs and the lows. In the case of using music to activate memory, I think we do want to stray from the neutral emotional responses to music. In my view, we want them to feel strongly, so that they can remember.
De Simone, M. S., Fadda, L., Perri, R., Aloisi, M., Caltagirone, C., & Carlesimo, G. A. (2016). Does retrieval frequency account for the pattern of autobiographical memory loss in early Alzheimer’s disease patients?. Neuropsychologia, 80, 194-200.
Juslin, P. N., & Laukka, P. (2004). Expression, perception, and induction of musical emotions: A review and a questionnaire study of everyday listening. Journal of New Music Research, 33(3), 217-238.
I was just conversing with one of my co-workers, and we both discovered that we grew up in the same hometown! Hello to all the people from South San Francisco!
Where is home to you? Where did you grow up? Who was there?
The reason I love music is because of my home. I received the best gift of a happy childhood with a large family. I learned what music my grandparents liked, what music my cousins enjoyed, and what my aunts and uncles listened to.
There was a song called “Penny Lane”, you might be familiar with the Beatles song:
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes/There beneath the blue suburban skies/I sit, and meanwhile back
The song is about the nostalgia of earlier years, in the hometown of the songwriters. South San Francisco is in my ears and in my eyes. I went to All Souls Catholic School. Anything beyond the radius of ten miles of my home was considered a long distance drive. I made friends with my neighbors. I made one friend asking, “Do you want to play Mercy?” Mercy is a game where you interlock fingers, and the winner is able to bend back the fingers of their opponent. The winner gets the opponent to say, “Mercy!” My neighbors and I walked up and down the same street every summer, talking about nothing and everything at the same time. If I had 75 cents I would buy donut holes at the corner shop near my school. If I had a dollar, I would buy a taco at the taco truck in Orange Park. At the park, there were tennis courts and basketball courts where we could fiercely compete against each other.
If we were really bored, my siblings, cousins, and I would bring cardboard up to Sign Hill. The hill reads, “South San Francisco, The Industrial City”. We would slide down the large letters on the hill. My house was right under the hill. My grandparents’ house was directly under the other side of the hill. My aunt’s house was around the corner of my grandparents’ house. If we couldn’t go outside, we took a mattress and slid down the staircase.
Think back to your Penny Lane!
As I child, I went to Roman Catholic mass. Every Saturday, my family and I would go together. Afterwards, we would eat in Burger King. If my siblings and I were really lucky, we would eat at our favorite Japanese restaurant.
At church, I learned songs. For instance,
I, who made the stars of night/I will make their darkness bright/Who will bear my light to them/Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord/Is it I, Lord/I have heard you calling in the night/I will go, Lord, if you lead me/I will hold your people in my heart (Schutte, 1981)
As a child, I am just happily singing. As an adult, I know what I am singing. God is asking, “Who am I going to send?” We are basically singing, “Send me! Here I am for you, Lord. I will love them, I will hold them in my heart.” I was just looking forward to going to Burger King back then.
I’ve been able to observe cognitive decline at work. It’s just like life. There will be good days. There will be beautiful days, but not everyday will be perfect. People aren’t perfect. There will also be bad days, and then there will be very bad days. Then one day, they will be gone.
You don’t know that your love can make people cry. Your power is in your love. Sing to them, sing with them – dance, laugh, smile. They can feel your love, even if they can’t show it. See past the exterior. It matters, it counts.
Schutte, D. (1981). Here I Am, Lord.
I walk along the city streets you used to walk along with me/ And every step I take reminds me of just how we used to be/Oh how can I forget you…when there is always something to remind me?
Music is a unique portal into our personal past, into the memories that are alive in us. What about when we are trying to forget what music brings back? Loss is already painful, whether it be leaving a partner, having a partner leave, death in the family, illness in the family, ailments in general, financial setbacks – name it.
For me, music evokes wonderful recollections of people. It is the haven of a broken heart. However, for some there may be no desire to remember someone. When there is no intention of remembering, yet remembering occurs it is an involuntary memory. Music-evoked autobiographical memories, or memories that music triggers, have the characteristics of involuntary memories (El Haj, Fasotti, & Allian, 2012). Any perceptual cue in the environment can provide rapid connection to a mental representation. I don’t know if there is a way of completely avoiding all circumstances and environments with the wish to forget.
The truth is, there are contextually rich events in our personal past, that are detailed affectively and precise with specifics of time and place. Perhaps these are the memories that make us feel most human, or most vulnerable. There is sorrow in the type of human suffering that would bring one to one’s knees. The powerful emotions that make us similar to each other – these feelings have guided my research and curiosities. I also wonder about the science of what brings healing to these emotional experiences.
El Haj, M., Fasotti, L., Allian, P. (2012). The involuntary nature of music-evoked autobiographical memories in Alzheimer’s disease. Consciousness and Cognition 21(1), 238-246.
I’ve been scratching my head because I have observed individuals cry to happy music. The following are two examples:
Why do individuals cry to music that sounds happy? I wonder, what could they be remembering? What led to the emotional impact? Were they so happy that they cried? Or, were they sad that they were once so happy? I really don’t know! What do you think?
If I were to have made a “Top 15 Energizing Songs to Play for a Group of Persons with Dementia” list, I would have probably included the above songs. It isn’t a bad idea to play happy music that people may weep to. I don’t doubt that it’s a good cry and not a bad cry. In addition, the majority of individuals would dance to this music. However, this makes me hesitant to make such a list of songs. Also, in a group setting, not all individuals are always in the mood for “In the Mood” (I couldn’t resist! I had to!), or for energizing music.
I return to what article piqued my interest in research, an article about music-evoked nostalgia (Barrett et al., 2010). I’m thinking of the mixed emotions of happiness and sadness in music listening. There are also a host of fascinating articles about the conundrum of why we might enjoy listening to sad music (I only included the articles that had the most impact on my research) (Kawakami, Furukawa, & Okanoya, 2014; Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012). I thought this might be an interesting spin.
Barrett, F. S., Grimm, K. J., Robins, R. W., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Janata, P. (2010). Music-evoked nostalgia: Affect, memory, and personality. Emotion, 10(3), 390-403. doi: 10.1037/a0019006
Kawakami, A., Furukawa, K., & Okanoya, K. (2014). Music evokes vicarious emotions in listeners. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(431), 1-7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00431
Vuoskoski, J. K., & Eerola, T. (2012). Can sad music really make you sad? Indirect measures of affective states induced by music and autobiographical memories. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(3), 204-213. doi: 10.1037/a0026937
I live for the song that lifts the gait, turns on the eye lamps, and animates; the song that brings consciousness to the here and now, to the smile that is assured happy memories to come. The song that is your cue to be happy – that song is my heartbeat, my world, and everything I live for.
I have been facilitating large music groups of older adults with chronic illnesses including Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. These groups have ranged from five to 40 persons. If I were to walk into a large room of such persons at the end of an afternoon, without having any prior music preference assessment, I would be confident in these 15 songs.
For more information, please contact christine at throwbax dot com.