What I Wish I'd Known About How Music Helps the Brain: Music Therapist Concetta Tomaino

This expert saw the therapeutic effects of music on people with dementia, strokes, and Parkinson's long before science made the connection official.

About 30 years ago, when Concetta Tomaino was getting a doctorate degree in music therapy at New York University and working mostly with special-needs children, she began an internship in the dementia ward of a nursing home.

"It was felt that the people in this unit couldn't respond to anything and weren't aware of anything, so all you could do was make them comfortable -- which back then meant medicating them so they were not agitated," she recalls. "I remember the recreation people saying, 'You can't work with them anyway, so why even bother?'"

But when Tomaino walked into the unit and began singing, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," things changed. The catatonic residents opened their eyes and looked at her, and the restless ones calmed down. Even those who were believed to be unable to speak or without cognitive ability joined in the singing.

Eventually, she discovered that music could play an integral role in helping stroke victims learn to speak again, Parkinson's patients walk with more fluidity of movement, and those with dementia and Alzheimer's recall people and memories. But it was almost impossible to scientifically validate the use of music for rehabilitation.

"It seemed like something that was just common sense, but people didn't really acknowledge it," Tomaino says. Music was considered entertainment, and literature about music and the brain was virtually impossible to find.

"I wish I had known that there were a few people doing brain imaging of music perception, but that information just wasn't available back then, or if it was, it was in some obscure library," she adds. But validating music therapy in the eyes of the larger community was essential to Tomaino. For the next 20 years, she did presentations to nursing homes and elsewhere about her experience of the importance of music therapy, stressing that people with Alzheimer's, even in the late stages, could be engaged in a meaningful way through music.

In 1995, Tomaino cofounded the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, an affiliate of the Beth Abraham Family of Health Services in New York, partly to serve as a bridge between the neuroscience community and clinical music therapists. By the late 1990s, large universities had begun to study the neurology of music.

Tomaino, who is the director of the Institute, is also on a mission to get the information out to the public and those in healthcare. "You can't assume anything about somebody just because of how they look or because of your biases about Alzheimer's or strokes," she says. "Never assume somebody's not there or they don't know what's going on. Try to find that gateway and that connection."

Read the full interview with Concetta Tomaino.

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