Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde’s famous quotes are generally insightful, biting, and sarcastic, but his comment on music and its tie to memory is only one of these three things: “Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memories.” What is it about music and memories and emotion that resonates so strongly? Can health care providers capitalize on these powerful connections to help people heal?
The Magic of Music and Memories
Music is a frequent presence. In some cases, it’s a conscious choice that you actively seek out by attending a concert or picking up an instrument. At other times, it’s in the background as you attend a social event, shop at the mall, or ride in an elevator. How does music come to be so firmly tied to memories? And what role is it finding in the field of health care?
Turning Back Time with a Tune
Before much-loved and valued stories were written down, they were chanted or sung, and the use of rhythm and rhyme helped to provide cues that made the words easier to remember, something that the successful continuation of oral tradition depended on. Even now, teachers use simple songs to teach the alphabet and other basic information because words set to music are the easiest for people to remember.
Music isn’t just useful for creating new memories. It can also be used to access memories. According to the BBC, there are several types of memories, including explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit memory is a deliberate, conscious attempt to retrieve facts about the past. In contrast, implicit memory is reactive and unintentional. The two systems are separate, and they use different parts of the brain.
While explicit memory is often damaged by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, implicit memory is more robust and more durable. As a result, it may provide a source of connection for patients who seem otherwise lost if doctors can figure out how to utilize it. Music also becomes something of a soundtrack as it becomes associated with specific events or experiences. Interestingly, the emotional connection isn’t necessarily tied to the mood of the music. A happy song can invoke a blue mood if it brings back memories of a bad time. In a similar fashion, a sad song can have positive feelings if it reminds someone of a happy period.
Healing with Music
Could the link between music and memories be useful? Researchers believe so. Harvard Health Publishing points to several situations where this connection aided healing:
- Singing Toward Speech: Scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have demonstrated that singing lyrics can help people who are recovering from a stroke or brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region that is responsible for speech. The ability to sing originates in the undamaged right side of the brain. Singing their thoughts first before gradually dropping the melody gives people a way to relearn to speak. This is the technique that former Representative Gabrielle Giffords used before testifying in front of a Congressional committee two years after a gunshot wound to her brain that initially left her unable to speak. Interestingly, singing can also help healthy individuals learn words and phrases more rapidly.
- Building Stronger Memories: Two separate studies, one in Japan and one in the U.S., asked healthy seniors to participate in weekly classes that involved moderate physical exercise to musical accompaniment. In both studies, the seniors did better on tests of memory and reasoning after they’d completed the classes. Researchers believe that listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain that are associated with memory, reasoning, emotion, speech, and reward.
- Opening Memory Vaults: Dan Cohen is a social worker and the subject of the award-winning 2014 documentary film Alive Inside. The film highlights Cohen’s work with music and patients who seemed to have lost all connection with the world around them. There’s nothing fancy about Cohen’s approach. He asks the patient’s family to provide a list of the songs or instrumental pieces that they once enjoyed. Then, he puts together a customized playlist on an MP3 player for the patient. While the approach is simple, the results are amazing. Patients who have been totally nonresponsive will begin to sing and sway along. Some will verbally recount the memories that the music brings back to the surface of their minds.
Music can drift quietly in the background or surge to the forefront and touch even the hardest of hearts. It’s something that people share with their friends even as it remains tied to their own unique experiences. Are there certain songs that take you back in time to memories that you cherish? If you were going to create a playlist of your favorite musical memories, what songs would be on it?
At Springhouse Village, we know how important it is to enjoy your retirement in a lively and welcoming environment. We make it easy for our residents to be active participants in our community. Whether that means encouraging residents to join an exercise class or assisting them in starting a garden club, we strive to help our residents thrive. To learn more about the amenities and services we offer, contact Springhouse Village today.