Exploring Music & Memory

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What is a song you really enjoy, that energizes you and puts you in a good mood?  What is it about that song that has that type of affect on you?  Maybe these are songs to which you play while working out or when driving with the top down.

I don’t like to dance but with a peppy song with a good beat my feet start tapping and my body may begin to sway, especially if it is one of my favorites like the musical Phantom of the Opera, songs by Michael Jackson or the Top Gun soundtrack.  As we know, music can provide focus.  Relaxing music slows down our breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. But music provides more than that; it can take us back in time and fill us with a wave of emotions.

As the communications manager for Front Porch, a non-profit offering independent living, assisted living, memory care and care centers, a recent documentary about a therapy program called Music and Memory℠ piqued my interest.

Social worker and educator Dan Cohen, a Baby Boomer, started Music and Memory℠ in 2010 in New York based on a simple premise – how could he continue to enjoy his favorite music if and when he moved into a retirement community?  With his background in social work and computers, he decided to bring iPods to assisted living communities and care centers.  Working with the residents, families and staff, he created personalized playlists for each resident. The result was profound emotional experience for all involved.

In the documentary, Dan explained that the part of the brain that registers music is not usually affected by dementia/Alzheimer’s so it is like a “backdoor into the mind.”  Music provides a stimulus; it activates the areas of the brain that are affected by rhythm, such as, coordination and emotion.  As Dr. Oliver Sacks M.D, neurologist, said, “Music is not separable from emotion … and personal experience. So it is not just a physiological stimulus.  If it works at all, it will call the whole person and many different parts of their brain and the memories and emotions that go with that and this is why … it is so potent.”

The documentary demonstrated many awe inspiring transformations.  A resident named Gil, a military veteran, transformed from agitated to calm with a smile across his face when he started hearing one of his favorite songs.  He would even start singing along to the song.  Henry, a resident, who seemed closed-off and unresponsive, would become energized and passionate when music from his heyday would play.  He would share the joy music gave him and some memories of when he heard that music.  Music opened their worlds again.  It connected them to their true selves with only an iPod, headphones and a personalized playlist of songs that are significant to them.

I started thinking about how some songs have the ability to bring back a specific feeling or memory.  I recently heard “The Rainbow Connection” sung by Kermit the Frog and found myself singing along and feeling a wave of nostalgia.  Songs from the musical Paint Your Wagon bring me back to when my mom would play the tape in the car when I was a child.  It was one of her favorite musicals.  John Lennon’s “Imagine” always reminds me of when I sang it with my class during our eighth-grade graduation.  Some songs have a more negative affect.  Some songs I would not want on a personalized iPod, such as, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin as I experience a wave of awkward teen experiences since it was always the last song played at our middle-school dances.  But even though “Mad World” by Michael Andrews is somber, I would want it added since I visualize the beautiful choreography I saw arranged to it.  Our lives, in a way, have their own individual soundtracks.

At Front Porch we believe in the spirit of the individual and nurturing the mind, body and soul.  With the support of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, I look forward to the Music and Memory℠ program being brought to our memory support communities, which include our award-winning Summer House communities that serve those with Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

What songs would you want on a personalized iPod to spur a wave of emotion and wonderful memories? — Michele Pomerance