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Using Active Music Making to Radically Improve The Lives of People Suffering From Alzheimer’s

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

Everyone working in senior care has experienced the power of music. We know how the right piece of music has the power to deeply, quickly, and positively impact us…especially as we age.

We have seen how music can instantly spur social interaction and joy for typically functioning seniors, bringing back vivid and meaningful experiences. Many of us have also observed how the right music can “light up” someone even in the last stages of dementia.

One of our goals at SingFit in using therapeutic music as an intervention is to take those fleeting light-up moments and transform them into a consistent practice that brings about positive therapeutic change – even for people with dementia, where positive change is often thought impossible.

In this first part of a two part series, I will share concepts and approaches we use at SingFit which utilize an active music making process as a powerful, functional, and scalable health tool.

The Difference Between Active Vs. Passive Music

Crucial to the understanding of how music can be used as a therapeutic tool is the distinction between active and passive musical experiences.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the differences:

Active music making, specifically singing, has been proven by neurologists to be a whole-brain workout. FMRI scans have shown that the entire brain lights up when we actively make music – everything from language to motor to memory centers is engaged!

Passive listening, under the FMRI scans, like many other activities, lights up a smaller, more specific portions of the brain.  The extent of brain activity is often dependent on the participant’s relationship to the given music and how the music is administered.

In a similar manner to a yoga practice, active music making engages a variety of physiological processes; from fine and gross motor movement, to rigorous regulation of breath and respiration.  

If we engage in a therapeutic singing process as regularly as other forms of exercise, there is the potential for progressive, sustained improvement not to mention to joy that comes with singing. Active music making helps to build new memories, both cognitive and physical, and has even been shown to build new neural networks. Yes, that means new memories for people with cognitive decline! The research of Gottfried Schlaug, a neurologist at Harvard, among others, has proven that these kinds of active musical processes help to increase neuroplasticity and overall brain function.

Passive listening, when used effectively, can be great for certain things such as  relaxation and a reminiscence process. However, unlike active music making, it does not innately encourage engagement or come with the same automatic physiological, neurological, and psychological benefits.

Most often, the efficacy in the therapeutic use of music listening depends on several factors:

  • How the music is administered

  • Who administers the music

  • The intent of the music listening process

  • If the music being played in some way matches the emotional or cognitive state of the participant, and thus encourages engagement and focus

  • If the music being administered is that which is preferred by the individual.

Why Singing Makes Us Feel So Good

This final point is also the most important point.

Active music making is an effective tool to release positive neurochemicals in the brain and body. Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin are all released when patients engage in active music making. These are the neuro chemicals that elevate mood, decrease agitation and that can lead to an increased sense of overall well being. 

Regular singing helps to help regulate cortisol, which, when out of balance, directly affects stress and blood pressure levels.

Overuse of anti-anxiety and anti psychotic drugs as well as opioid painkillers has become a national epidemic, especially among the elderly. Active music making is a very promising, safe and scalable way to reduce the need for these types of medications, as seen in this video created by our clients at the Oxnard Adult Day program in California. 

Andy Tubman, MT-BC 

Co-Founder/Chief Clinical Officer of Musical Health Technologies

Next week, Part Two of this series on Active Vs. Passive Music as a Therapeutic Tool. Make sure to sign up for our newsletter, to keep up with Andy’s blog and SingFit News.


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