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Finding the Music in Our Lives

Tony Bennett, at the age of 95, recently gave one last performance at Radio City Music Hall, what sets this show apart from the others is that Tony has advancing Alzheimer’s disease. With the support of his family, the concert was a sell-out and Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes covered the event. 

What is astonishing about the news report is the difference in Tony’s cognitive engagement when Anderson is interviewing him at home and when we see him on stage. At home, you can see the confusion on his face. The troubled look persists as he is backstage, sitting with his wife before the performance. Then his wife leads him onto the stage. The lights go down, and the curtain goes up. It brings him back to his familiar routine. Tony is transformed. His face floods with joy, his eyes sparkle, and he throws his arms wide and drinks in the energy of the crowd.

Tony’s neurologist explains that music is a “whole brain activator,” engaging multiple parts of the brain. It’s not just the auditory cortex that music lights up, but the systems for movement and dance. It’s no wonder that music therapy is so beneficial for dementia. It improves not only cognitive function, but also quality of life for dementia patients, reducing both short-term and long-term depression.

Our brains possess a remarkable ability to make, store, and retrieve memories of music.

But we don’t need science to tell us how powerful the connection between music, memory, and emotion can be. We’ve all had the experience of hearing a song that immediately makes the whole emotional content of a time long past wash over us as if it were current and present. 

What is it about music that’s so emotional and powerful? I wrote earlier about  muscle memory, and how you can sometimes find a window into a part of someone you love that goes deeper than the memories themselves. For Tony Bennett, you can see that his depth is not just about the music, although he is able to call up almost every note and every lyric, and his rhythm is flawless. But it’s more than that. It’s his familiarity with the whole experience, his response to the love from the audience that brings back the performer in him. This is an aspect of him that’s so deeply embedded in his personality that he taps directly into it, apparently bypassing the part of his brain that’s compromised by Alzheimer’s.

Our brains possess a remarkable ability to make, store, and retrieve memories of music, even if we’re not talented musicians. But how does it work and why does music seem to be protected from dementia? How can we tap into those things now—and how can we help someone with dementia tap into them? 

To understand what gives music this special power, let’s look at the brain’s map. To form and retrieve long-term memories, multiple regions of the brain work together to form a network that transmits information from one region of the brain to another. So, when you remember something you saw earlier in the day, you are accessing your occipital lobe, which is connected to vision. When you remember what you were thinking about earlier or wondering about something that occurred, you are using your frontal lobe (which is important for thinking). Music memories are stored in an area within the temporal lobe called the auditory cortex, which is connected to hearing. When you envision the more distant past or imagine the future, all of these different representations are put together in a specific region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is located within the temporal lobes. Here is where we form memories. 

Because music memories are stored in a different part of the brain, it activates the brain through alternative connections. This may be how music seems to thwart cognitive decline.

When trying to connect with someone who has dementia, consider triggers that are visual and auditory and are also tied to emotional experiences. For example, many people with Alzheimer’s light up when they see a baby or young child, even if they don’t know the baby—because it’s the familiar delight that comes with the sight, sound and smell of babies that’s important at the moment. Also, look for purely sensory experiences, ones that don’t require any thinking or remembering. This could be as simple as a sweet breeze or a smell or taste that is strongly associated with memories—as well as, of course, music itself. 

For Tony Bennett this last concert was a celebration of a lifetime of performing. Tony is a shining example that the common thread in all these deep memories is artistic beauty, which bypasses the mind and goes straight to the heart.