Music: A melodic manner to awaken cherished memories

Written by Bob Kleinfelder, Birches Assisted Living resident and senior editor emeritus of The Lions Club’s LION Magazine

Music—a popular form of entertainment, a stimulus to put one in a dancing or singing mood, a tuneful reminder of times past, a lucrative income for artists and composers, an accompaniment for relaxation or a spirited command to “forward march.” However, we define it, music has a special meaning for each of us.

The songs we heard in our youth, the tunes that brought joy to our parents and grandparents, the pop songs our kids now listen to (and for the life of us we can’t understand why). Indeed, we all have our favorite musical styles— be it classical, jazz, blues, country western, patriotic, or the top 40. Music is an important part of our lives.

Music, though, is also vital for individuals viewed as too old and mentally feeble, those thought to be beyond hope of ever awakening to the reality of the moment. As has been observed in professional studies, certain pathways in the brain are sometimes accessible only via music and seem to be detours around conventional pathways that age has closed.

According to psychiatrist and bioethicist Tia Powell, “The capacity to enjoy and respond to music outlasts many other cognitive functions; even after spontaneous speech has become difficult, many people can still sing lyrics to songs learned long ago.”

People who suffer from mild or even advanced dementia often respond to music in a way that has been shown to diminish emotional distress and certain symptoms. Music, likely in some emotional way, brings men and women living with dementia moments of joy that are sadly lacking in their lives.

Twice a month here at The Birches, counselor and board certified dance/movement therapist Gail Ann Bradshaw conducts a 'movement to music' hour for residents. She also offers a similar program twice a month for residents in Encore, our neighborhood for people with memory loss and dementia. I attended one of the sessions and observed as men and women who exhibited little awareness of their surroundings responded to the music being played by grasping hands and even swinging and swaying as best they could. Two or three even stood up and held hands with Gail to move to the music. It was truly heartening to see them enjoying themselves.

Gail revealed her method. “I call it ‘Movement Dialogue’ by employing eye contact and rhythm to make them feel really personally involved in joining with me in this rhythmic adventure. At the beginning of every session, I greet each patient personally be holding their hands and making that all important eye contact,” she explains, “to let them know I respect them as individuals as we enjoy ourselves together.” Throughout the session Gail continually encourages these now eager men and women to keep moving to the music.

I couldn’t help but notice that the song which received the greatest response was “Sentimental Journey.” Perhaps it elicited fond memories of times past.

Yes, music brings back memories. They may be happy, somber, and to be sure, reflective. Mitch Miller and his band and chorus made a career of offering the songs that jarred these memories. I’m certain we can all recall the melodies of prom night, those that filled the airways and those made famous by our favorite vocalists and vocal groups (long live The Kingston Trio). These memories constitute a very special type of therapy, one that tells us the past is still with us through the spirit of music. I’m sure you all know that great ballad, “You Are My Sunshine.” It has a very special meaning for me because it was the song my wife sang to our sons then they were babies, and then to our grandchildren.

I believe we can all conjure up similar beautiful memories through music—singing Christmas carols with your family, dancing on your wedding day, staying up late with your parents on New Year’s Eve to hear Guy Lombardo play “Auld Lange Syne.”

You associate certain songs with a special moment or time in your life. For me, one such moment was on November 22, 1963. I was pulling kitchen patrol duty at Fort Lewis, Washington. The radio was on in the mess hall, and we all knew President Kennedy had been shot. There were about 15 of us, of all ranks. It was about noon and we were ready to begin serving. Then the radio announcer spoke those words I’ll never forget: “President Kennedy is dead. Lyndon Johnson is the 36th President of the United States.” The band started playing “The Star Spangled Banner” and without a word, we all snapped to attention and stood proudly as Americans. More than 50 years later, that scene is still ingrained in my mind and there it shall remain.

The following day, my 41st Signal Battalion joined with hundreds of men of the 4th Infantry Division at a ceremony on the parade ground. It was chilly day with a soft drizzle, but no one flinched as we saluted when the post band played our National Anthem, “Hail to the Chief,” and “Taps” as the flag was lowered to half-staff. We marched off the field as the band played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Truly, a time when the moment and the music are etched forever in one’s memory.

Music, then, is more than a form of entertainment, although it’s great for that. It’s also a link to the past, a melodic element that binds families and friends together. A certain song can give you more comfort than any words. And for those suffering dementia, it may well be a pathway to the brain. So consider the many dimensions music can exhibit and how it may become a cherished part of your life. The next time you are with a group, formal or informal, and the group is asked to join in singing “God Bless America,” don’t feel ill at ease, because you know the words.