The Sound of Music Therapy: Harmony between the Brain and its Memories

September 29, 2020

Written by: Elizabeth Rivabem

This week’s article was written by Guest Author Elizabeth Rivabem, a high school student interested in chemistry and neurobiology. When she isn’t doing homework or studying, you can find her swimming under the Miami sun or making bad puns with her friends.

Remember that nostalgic song from your childhood or that happy tune that makes you want to dance? Music is an integral part of our cultural and self-identities. Scientists have discovered that this emotive power of music can be used to improve the outcomes of patients with Alzheimer’s Disease, offering another tool to help treat this neurodegenerative disorder. The Netflix documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory highlighted using music as therapy, but how does music actually change the brain?1

In order to understand how to utilize the therapeutic properties of music, we must understand how music affects the brain (Figure 1). When a person listens to a song, the temporal lobe, located on the sides of the brain behind the ears, processes the instrumentation and beats (hence tempo-ral, pun intended). A small region called Wernicke’s Area interprets the lyrics, if there are any. Then, an internal portion of the brain, known as the amygdala, registers the music and helps you decide whether or not you like the song. The amygdala’s reaction determines the emotions you feel towards the song, creating an emotional memory in the hippocampus.2 Now, the song will hippo-camp in your head until you want to recall it!

Figure 1: A schematic of the different brain regions that are involved in listening to a song.

Music isn’t just something to dance to; it can also be used in a clinical setting. Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease experience a buildup of plaque in their neurons (cells in the brain) which leads to a breakdown of the cells’ ability to communicate with each other. When neurons stop transmitting messages back and forth, these brain cells begin to die (shown in Figure 2). In this disease, neuron death is predominantly in the hippocampus, which is why so many patients with Alzheimer’s begin to lose their memories. There are drugs that help reduce these symptoms, but pharmacological medicine has its limits. That’s where music therapy comes into play! 

Figure 2: A comparison of structural MRI brain scans from a healthy person (left) and a patient with Alzheimer’s disease (right). Alzheimer’s disease leads to permanent neuronal death and loss of gray matter in the brain. 

The most common treatment for Alzheimer’s consists of a drug in conjunction with psychotherapy, or live interactions with a therapist. This combination has worked relatively well, but studies show that adding music therapy yields even better results.3 Patients who spent time actively listening to music showed more improvements in cognitive function and emotional wellbeing in the first few weeks compared to those who received only normal treatment, but long-term results were more ambiguous.4  

What might explain these cognitive improvements? Musical memories are likely stored in a different part of the brain than ordinary ones.5 Recalling music activates a wider area of the brain, making it easier to remember songs than plain information, even with a debilitated memory. One patient in the Netflix documentary used to sit quietly with his head bowed down, almost unable to engage in conversation. After listening to music, however, he began to dance, sing, and answer questions in detail! Music can also stimulate the brain’s reward system and slow down the heart rate, helping patients feel pleasure and be more relaxed.6 In other words, listening to your favorite song can improve your quality of life. 

The current findings on music therapy are promising, but scientists need more research before implementing it en masse. It is still unknown whether music can slow down neuron death in the hippocampus or not. If researchers continue to find evidence of its promising effects, music therapy could become a much cheaper and more enjoyable alternative or supplement to other Alzheimer’s treatments. However, music therapy is an esoteric profession, which means it is not widely accessible. Although all music therapists can be musicians, not all musicians can be music therapists. Over four years of clinical education and experience are required, in addition to taking a national exam to become board-certified and practice music therapy professionally. Taste in music is also highly individualized, which means that institutions cannot develop widespread, general treatment plans and expect good results. 

Figure 3: Pros and Cons of incorporating music therapy into Alzheimer’s treatments. The individualized nature of music therapy helps to make it more effective and personalized, but also makes it harder to standardize and administer.

Despite these limitations, music therapy has the potential to help clinical patients. In the future, music therapy can be explored in treating disorders such as depression and anxiety or even be implemented in school settings. So, the next time you talk to your parents or grandparents on the phone, maybe sing them a little song to stimulate their memory and make them smile. 

Cover image from Pexels


  1. ​
  3. Wang, S., & Agius, M. (2018). The use of music therapy in the treatment of mental illness and the enhancement of societal wellbeing. Psychiatria Danubina. 30(Suppl 7):595-600.
  4. Witusik, A., Pietras, T. (2019). Music therapy as a complementary form of theory for mental disorders. Pol Merkur Lekarski. 47(282):240-243. 
  5. Moreno-Morales, C., Calero, R., Moreno-Morales, P., & Pintado, C. (2020). Music Therapy in the Treatment of Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Medicine, 7, 1–11. 
  6. Leggieri, M., Thaut, M. H., Fornazzari, L., Schweizer, T. A., Barfett, J., Munoz, D. G., & Fischer, C. E. (2019). Music Intervention Approaches for Alzheimer’s Disease: A Review of the Literature. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 132. 

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