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March 17, 2008 at 12:12 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Music and Memory: Whats the Link?

By Smarty More Blogs by This Author

Music is incredibly unique in that it is a universal language. Every culture creates music in some form or another. To see the power of music, play some music in a crowded room and see how many people start tapping their feet. Music and rhythm is especially interesting in relation to brain function. Music calms and relaxes us, and is often used to help those suffering from depression, anxiety, and even physical pain. It greatly enhances our ability to focus, especially when playing an instrument. This increased relaxation and focus is essential to forming and recalling memories.

Memory loss is a natural part of aging. Brain cells are lost, a few at a time, starting at about age 20 and continues on as we get older. This occurs as the body slowly makes fewer of the chemicals needed to maintain prime brain function, but this change becomes more pronounced as we age, eventually affecting our ability to create and recall memories.

Listening to, singing to, and playing music for the sake of rehabilitation is considered music therapy. It takes place in homes, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and even prisons. It has been used to help stroke victims, those with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, autism, and schizophrenia.

Alzheimer’s & Dementia

People with Alzheimer’s or Dementia experience premature senility or loss of memory. Researchers have found that music and memory are processed and retrieved in the same part of the brain, called the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. Music is especially hard-wired into the brain, it seems, often being the last memories to go. When patients suffer from accelerated memory loss, music can be used to reconstruct disordered memories by re-routing broken neural connections. Alzheimer’s patients sitting indifferent and unmoved in a nursing home have been known to brighten in response to music, sometimes even recalling lyrics perfectly.

Stroke Victims

Those who have suffered a stroke are also often the victims of memory loss, sometimes extensive. A stroke is the result of blood clot that affects the amount blood received by the brain. Oxygen-starved neurons in the brain die off quickly, disrupting neural pathways and resulting in loss of motor, verbal, and memory skills. Music therapy is used to help stroke victims much like those with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, by decreasing stress, greatly increasing the ability to focus, and strengthening new pathways for memory retrieval. Some stroke victims who have lost seemingly all verbal skills, including the ability to talk, have been known to recall and sing songs associated with their adolescence and childhood. This suggests that music, memory, and language are all very closely related in the brain.

Children, Music and Memory

Music has also been shown to help children with learning and memory. The Chinese University of Hong Kong recently published a study stating that children with music training performed higher on verbal memory tests than those without. It is thought that learning music requires exercising the same ‘brain muscles’ needed to form and recall memories. The science of music therapy, as well as the science of the brain and its functions, is still in its infancy. These first few experiments and results, however, hint at the huge potential music therapy hold for rehabilitating those with memory loss.


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