Arts Blog

Music and the Brain: Music and Memory

The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity. . . — Oliver Sacks

In our last two posts investigating the fascinating realm of Music and the Brain, we explored what drives our musical preferences and some of the human body’s physiological responses of listening to music. Today, we look into the connections between music and memory, and how music can serve as an agent of healing through helping sufferers of Alzheimer’s Disease deal with memory loss.

Saving His Music

In a past Thursdays @ Three broadcast, and in various events in the Portland area, pianist Naomi has shared the music of Steve Goodwin, a pianist and composer with Alzheimer’s. Through their project Saving His Music, Naomi has helped Steve write down and capture his music before it fades into the fog of his disease.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, a chronic disorder that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. While the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging and progressively worsens over time. Alzheimer’s begins in the early stages with mild memory loss, but in the later stages of the disease, a patient will experience symptoms that interfere with daily life, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes, and difficulty speaking.

Steve’s music, often inspired by nature, served as the soundtrack for his family’s life and easily flowed from his hands to the piano. Much of it was never written down, and early onset Alzheimer’s made it difficult for Steve to play piano. But by recalling moments from his songs, Steve has been collaborating with Naomi to fill in the gaps. His music, though he may struggle to get it out, still remains deeply instilled within him.

The connection between music and memory

Music has a profound connection to our personal memories. Listening to an old favorite song can take you back years to the moment that you first heard it. A 2009 study done by cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janata at the University of California, Davis, found a potential explanation for this link between music and memory by mapping the brain activity of a group of subjects while they listened to music.

Janata had subjects listen to excerpts of 30 different songs through headphones while recording their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The songs were chosen randomly from “top 100” charts from years when each subject would have been 8 to 18 years old. After each excerpt, the subject was asked to answer questions about song, including whether the song was familiar, enjoyable, or linked to a specific autobiographical memory. Janata found that songs linked to strong emotions and memories corresponded with fMRI images that had greater activity in the upper part of the medial pre-frontal cortex, which sits right behind the forehead. This suggests that upper medial pre-frontal cortex, which is also responsible for supporting and retrieving long-term memories, acts as a “hub” that links together music, emotions, and memories.

These findings were supported by an earlier study, where Janata found that this very same region of the brain was active in tracking tonal progressions while listening to music. This music-tracking activity became even stronger when a subject was listening to a song associated with powerful autobiographical memories. In this way, Janata describes that listening to a piece of familiar music “serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” calling back memories of a particular person or place.


Music therapy and Alzheimer’s

The medial upper prefrontal cortex “hub” also happens to be one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy from Alzheimer’s. This may explain why people with Alzheimer’s can still recall old songs from their past, and why music can bring about strong responses from people with Alzheimer’s, causing patients to brighten up and even sing along. In fact, a type of therapy called music therapy takes advantage of this very phenomenon.

Music Therapy is a type of non-verbal therapy that uses instruments and music to help people work through a range of emotional, cognitive, and social issues. Music Therapy can be a profound tool for healing through using the process of making and listening to music, providing people with a powerful channel for communication and expression.

How exactly does music therapy work? As we discussed in our previous post on physiological responses to music, music can act decrease anxiety and stress by affecting heart rate, breathing, and promoting the release of endorphins. But as we have discovered, music can also help bring back previously forgotten memories.

A recent study from Brown University School of Public Health found that the use of a music therapy program on long-stay nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s was associated with reductions in anxiety medication, as well as improvements in behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. The music therapy program used in this study, Music and Memory, provides patients with personalized listening devices stocked with playlists of their favorite music. If you’d like to learn more about Music and Memory, the program was featured in the 2014 award-winning documentary, Alive Inside. I also recommend the author and neurologist Oliver Sacks’s excellent book, Musicophilia, which explores the effect of music on the brain and the human condition through a series of portraits on people from all walks of life. Remember, wherever you are in life, music can be used as a power to heal and remember what matters to us.


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Intern: Winter 2018


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