The man had not spoken in three or four years. An older man in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, he could no longer care for himself and required a high level of assistance in his daily activities of living. But on one particular day, Concetta Tomaino, DA, a certified music therapist, offered a different kind of dementia therapy—she sang an old Yiddish song to him and some of her other patients. “You could tell by his face that he was watching,” recalls Tomaino.
From a man in his condition, attention was a lot to ask for. “Whenever I got a chance I played this song to him and sang to him. Within a month of doing this, he was making an attempt to speak, and he eventually started singing the song himself. He also started talking again. He continued talking and lived for many years after that.”
The Brain and Music
Just how the brain and body process music remains mysterious. Tomaino, director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services in New York, says we at least know music is processed on many levels at once.
“Why it’s so positive is that we process music with almost every part of our brain,” she says. “Music that has personal significance to someone or is connected with historical events is a strong stimulus to engage responses in people, even in late stages of dementia. Even if they’re not necessarily able to tell you what the song is, they are able to be moved and feel the associations.”
Tomaino and other researchers have found a strong connection between the human brain’s auditory cortex and its limbic system, where emotions are processed. “This biological link makes it possible for sound to be processed almost immediately by the areas of the brain that are associated with long-term memory and the emotions,” she says.