The Healing Power of Music
by Steve Toll and Linda Bareham


What better “medicine” than a “treatment” that has only positive side effects and  “therapy” that is actually enjoyable?  That is the “miracle of music” when applied with intention.  Music is shown to have the ability to help organize the brain; especially vital to those who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s. 

Usually after twenty minutes of music, there are observable effects, such as singing, foot tapping, and clapping.  Studies have shown that the results of a musical therapy session last for several hours afterward.  Positive results include elevated mood, increased socialization and appetite and reduction in agitation.  These benefits are attributed to the stimulation the brain receives during a music therapy session, a sort of “cognitive workout” inspiring us to coin the phrase, “What exercise is to the body, music is to the brain.” The power of music often inspires physical movement and can be used in combination to encourage gentle exercise.

As speech, writing and traditional forms of communication are compromised, music provides an alternative means of maintaining a connection, thereby helping to normalize interaction between caregiver and patient. Music used therapeutically creates an environment where the patient can be nurtured and cared for in a way that is safe, gentle and appropriate. Music is central to maintaining human bonds when those with dementia have lost the ability to initiate communication or to respond verbally. 

The powers of music when focused and used therapeutically are many.  Critical to maintaining quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s is management of emotions and preserving the connection with others.  Music is conducive to keeping those connections strong as long as possible while helping the participant to focus, increase awareness and orient to the environment.  A number of research studies have looked at music therapy as an important adjunct to medical treatment and findings suggest a possible link between the use of music and slowing the progression of dementia.

From the rhythms of the heartbeat experienced in the womb to the stirring sounds of a marching band, rhythmic patterns and music surround us.  Language itself has a musical quality to it and from the beginning of mankind, as expressed through chanting and drumming, resembled music more closely than speech.  Music is primal to life and expressed by each of us every day whether through dancing to a favorite tune, keeping rhythm with a pencil or remembering a special time when hearing a forgotten melody.   It is central to our lives and is embedded in our culture, defining how we acknowledge milestones, rites of passage and celebrations as well as providing comfort, transformation and inspiration. Music links us to our world and provides a pathway back to our past.

You don’t need to have any special musical training to institute a therapeutic music program.  You will need to select appropriate music, however.  This music consists of familiar tunes from the 30s, 40s and 50s with more contemporary music included, depending on the preference or age of the participant.   Before you invest in any CDs, check in your own home for possible sources of music.  Your local library is a good source.  Consider individual preferences and select music that is singable and upbeat.

Steve Toll, a professional musician and trainer, and his wife Linda Bareham, a writer and researcher in the area of alternative therapies for seniors with dementia, formed the company Prescription-Music.  Mr. Toll is on the Speaker’s Board for the National Alzheimer’s Association and trains professional and family caregivers in the development of music therapy programs where his intent is to spread the word of the healing power of music for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

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