Most of us go about our days having a song stuck in our head or immediately associate a given memory to a tune we knew as a child.  It could be a brief moment of recognition or passing thought that makes us smile and long for a past that we’ve misplaced.  It could be one of an estimated 6,000 distinct thoughts a person has in a 24-hour period; quickly forgotten like a random car driving by.  However, in times of trouble, a song can be a godsend to help us focus our thoughts and ground our emotions so that we can go about tasks that require our attention. Music can be an important tool to help older adults with cognitive impairment.

“Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What do the experts say?

In 2005, Dartmouth researchers determined that music is held in the part of our brains called the “auditory cortex” and for the most part, this area of the brain is not susceptible to cognitive diseases such as dementia.  The Dartmouth team further found:

“if people are listening to music that is familiar, they mentally call upon auditory imagery, or memories, to fill in the gaps if the music cuts out. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity, the researchers found that study participants could mentally fill in the blanks if a familiar song was missing short snippets.”

Research shows that by 2050 there will be 114 million people with dementia which has encouraged researchers to figure out what can enhance cognitive functions. Treatments that can be promoted in each life stage.

“Some studies show that listening to music improves cognitive skills such as fluency, working memory, and recognition memory, among others. For example, background music was investigated as a strategy that could improve cognitive skills.”

How can music help older adults with cognitive development?

In essence, despite what happens to our bodies, the musical memories from our youth should still be able to be accessed throughout our lives.  For someone with cognitive impairment, such as a resident living in Memory Care, a musical memory can curb anxiety, abnormal behaviors, and for brief periods of time, restore certain facets of cognition that may have been affected by their disease.  Berman Commons and The Cohen Home both use a “Music and Memory” program to help residents enjoy their best moments.  On any given day, you’ll be able to see residents enjoying live concerts within the community, musical activities such as Name That Tune, or using personalized listening devices that are loaded with songs from their childhoods. Music is a key to unlocking memories in the older adult mind.

To find out more about how music can help with cognitive impairment, check out the film, “Alive Inside – A Story of Music and Memory” which is produced and directed by Michael Rosatto-Bennett.


Dartmouth University. “Dartmouth Researchers Find Where Musical Memories Are Stored In The Brain.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 April 2005. <>.

Diaz Abrahan, V., Shifres, F., & Justel, N. (2019). Cognitive Benefits From a Musical Activity in Older Adults. Frontiers in psychology10, 652.