Music & Memory

Music and memory have a tremendously strong link. Hearing an old song can take you back decades in the blink of an eye. One of my earliest memories is listening to my mothers 8-track cassette of Dolly Partons 1977 Album, Here you come Again. I still have vivid memories of this time in my life due to the recall of memories associated with the music surrounding me. 

Me Rocking out to Dolly

Fast forward to when I found myself working with folks who had tramatic brain Injuries (TBI) or organic memory issues, like Dementia or Alzheimers.  I found this work to be both challenging and rewarding. I enjoyed sitting back and watching clients and their relationship with music. I witnessed some dramatic personality changes after residents started listening to music either individually or as a group. Once, a man who hadn't uttered a sound to his wife for years suddenly "woke up" when Dusty springfield came on the radio. I was in mid sentence speaking to his wife when he began signing along, while we both watched stunned.  His wife reached out and took his hand and it seemed for the first time in a long while, there was a moment of clarity and they fully connected.  Dementia patients are still in there, and I always felt my challenge was to find the right trigger back to clarity, even if momentarily. 

This leads me to Alive Inside.  A documentary that follows social worker Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, as he fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music's ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it. Music & Memory has taken the idea of music’s connection with our lives and brought it to a new level. Building on the theory that music triggers memories, founder Dan Cohen established a program to get iPods donated to nursing homes to provide music-related therapy to patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or other illnesses that cause dementia. 

From the Music & Memory site:

Even for persons with severe dementia, music can tap deep emotional recall. For individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s, memory for things—names, places, facts—is compromised, but memories from our teenage years can be well-preserved.
Favorite music or songs associated with important personal events can trigger memory of lyrics and the experience connected to the music. Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.
Persons with dementia, Parkinson’s and other diseases that damage brain chemistry also reconnect to the world and gain improved quality of life from listening to personal music favorites.

Ongoing research and evaluation of Music & Memory’s work in care organizations shows consistent results:

  • Participants are happier and more social.
  • Relationships among staff, participants and family deepen.
  • Everyone benefits from a calmer, more supportive social environment.
  • Staff regain valuable time previously lost to behavior management issues.
  • There is growing evidence that a personalized music program gives professionals one more tool in their effort to reduce reliance on anti-psychotic medications.

Music and Learning

A data-driven review by Northwestern University researchers published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience pulls together research from the scientific literature linking musical training to learning that spills over to skills including language, speech, memory, attention and even vocal emotion. The science covered comes from labs all over the world, from scientists of varying scientific philosophies, using a wide range of research methods.

The explosion of research in recent years focusing on the effects of music training on the nervous system, including the studies in the review, have strong implications for education, said Nina Kraus, lead author of the Nature perspective, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

Scientists use the term neuroplasticity to describe the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of training and experience over the course of a person’s life. The studies covered in the Northwestern review offer a model of neuroplasticity, Kraus said. The research strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication.
An active engagement with musical sounds not only enhances neuroplasticity, she said, but also enables the nervous system to provide the stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns so important to learning.
“The brain is unable to process all of the available sensory information from second to second, and thus must selectively enhance what is relevant,” Kraus said. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex process that may involve reading or remembering a score, timing issues and coordination with other musicians.
“A musician’s brain selectively enhances information-bearing elements in sound,” Kraus said. “In a beautiful interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes, the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean.” The efficient sound-to-meaning connections are important not only for music but for other aspects of communication, she said.

The Nature article reviews literature showing, for example, that musicians are more successful than non-musicians in learning to incorporate sound patterns for a new language into words. Children who are musically trained show stronger neural activation to pitch changes in speech and have a better vocabulary and reading ability than children who did not receive music training.

Also musicians trained to hear sounds embedded in a network of melodies and harmonies are primed to understand speech in a noisy background. They exhibit both enhanced cognitive and sensory abilities that give them a distinct advantage for processing speech in challenging listening environments compared with non-musicians. Children with learning disorders are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of background noise, according to the article.

“Music training seems to strengthen the same neural processes that often are deficient in individuals with developmental dyslexia or who have difficulty hearing speech in noise.”

Currently what is known about the benefits of music training on sensory processing beyond that involved in musical performance is largely derived from studying those who are fortunate enough to afford such training, Kraus said. The research review, the Northwestern researchers conclude, argues for serious investing of resources in music training in schools accompanied with rigorous examinations of the effects of such instruction on listening, learning, memory, attention and literacy skills.

Music and the Brain 

The Music and the Brain program was developed as a "real world" application of the research linking cognitive ability and music instruction, particularly in young children.  In addition to developing a solid curriculum and teaching materials, Music and the Brain set up research to study the effects of the program on students' aptitude in multiple subject areas including reading, spelling, calculation, aquiring English as a second language, and attention. 

"Music and the Brain" is an educational program created by Lisha Lercari, an educator on a mission to promote the creative benefits of teaching music to young children. Michelle Miller reports.

Music and the Brain (MATB) is a project of the 42nd St. Development Corp. designed to teach public school students to read and play music through classroom keyboard instruction.  Since 1997, more than 275 schools and 400,000 students have benefitted from Music and the Brain training, curriculum and keyboards.

Inspired by neurological research linking music and cognitive development, MATB is the experience of what studies are telling us; When children receive sequential music instruction, it can impact their proficiency in language, reading, math and cognition. 

The MATB program is granted to qualifying public schools and includes invaluable teacher training, piano books, keyboards, recordings and rhythm cards for successful classroom piano study.  The comprehensive curriculum was designed for all levels, particularly K-5th grade. With participating schools throughout N.Y.C., New Orleans, Ferguson (MO)  and beyond, more than 45,000 students receive Music and the Brain lessons each year.