How Music Therapy Can Help After a Stroke or Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease

Music therapy can have a dramatic effect on people after a stroke or a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

People familiar with Alzheimer's disease know this: memory loss and other effects are retrograde. That is, people lose memories, skills and abilities in the opposite order in which they were acquired.

People familiar with language acquisition know this: melodies and songs are easy to learn and aid language learning. We've all had the experience of busting out singing"”word-for-word"”to a song we haven't heard in 20 years. That's because music memory is processed across many parts of the brain and is thus preserved better than language memory alone.

Together, these facts point towards the effectiveness of music therapy for people with Alzheimer's disease and those recovering from a stroke who are relearning language skills. If songs are some of the first things we learn, they might also be some of the last things we remember.

The History of Music Therapy

Music therapy was established in 1950. It is designed to improve physical and emotional health through the use of music, through listening, song writing, performing, exploring lyrics or other activities related to music. Music therapy is most often used as part of stress management programs.

While music therapy is an emerging field, music itself has many benefits for health and stress management, and can be used in daily life to relieve stress and promote wellness. (This is not formal music therapy, but it can be effective for stress relief.)

Using Music Therapy to Help Alzheimer's & Stroke Patients

Since music therapy uses the brain's multi-layered processing of music, there is recent and intense interest in its applications with Alzheimer's disease. A study at the University of Iowa showed that simple activities like singing and moving to music decreased wandering and disruptive behaviors among residents with Alzheimer's at nursing homes.

True, certified music therapists are trained musicians who play instruments and sing and are trained to use music therapeutically. However, the principles of music therapy—that music relaxes people both physically and psychologically, and can relieve pain and create emotional intimacy—still apply outside of the formal therapeutic realm.

Using music to trigger memory and engagement in someone with Alzheimer's disease requires a bit of homework. You must find out either what the person's favorite songs were or, if that isn't possible, try out a variety of songs that were popular when that person was young. Songs from the teenage and young adult years tend to be particularly effective.

The senior may sing along or even want to dance. Music has the power to work throughout the body, triggering muscle memory of anything from intricate dance steps to simple hand clapping or foot tapping in time with the rhythm.

Alzheimer's disease isn't the only condition whose effects may be improved by music therapy. A study from the American Society of Neurorehabilitation compared two groups of stroke victims, where one group was given traditional physical therapy, and the other received music therapy. The music therapy group showed greater physical improvement towards walking in a shorter period of time. These results are very encouraging for those who wish to employ music in a therapeutic setting to patients with Alzheimer's disease or those who are recovering from a stroke.


Kathy N. Johnson, PhD, CMC is a Certified Care Manager and the Co-Founder of Home Care Assistance, Inc. She holds a Doctorate in Psychology from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Kathy is committed to serving the needs of seniors nationwide.