by Josh Cottell
‘Music can shine light into places where nothing else can reach.’
James Rhodes seems to sum up my thoughts exactly. A pianist by profession, his 2014 autobiography describes his journey through an abusive childhood leading to a tough relationship with mental health. His journey is certainly an inspiration to anyone, yet it is his view on music’s ability to help others that is one to which I especially relate. I have had the opportunity to witness how music can really change someone in the change of a chord, a short melody, a couple of lyrics. It is a moment you can’t really forget and rightly shouldn’t because it is something that makes us feel whole.
But how is this related to memory?
One in ten of over-65-year-olds face Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. The word dementia describes a range of symptoms yet what most associate when they hear this word is short-term memory loss. However, people forget that there is also a huge degeneration of the person which is quite often very rapid. Once this occurs there are issues in speaking, ability to think, processing language and a personality that has more abusive and anxious characteristics. The memory loss is not only for facts, it is for procedural memories too; would you be able to remember the processes for basic functions like swallowing? The effect on the person living with this (and that is the phrase that should be used, not suffering) is therefore vast and really does change the course of their life. Yet it is also about those around them, those who must see their loved ones deal with this horrible erosion of the person they used to know. The hardest part for me, and I’m sure I’m speaking for others here too, was the point when they do not know your name any more. It’s tough. The only consolation is the fact that they know you’re there and they are there too, if not in full presence.
There are currently no cures for Alzheimer’s and that really is a problem. Of the top ten causes of death of in the US, there is only one that cannot be prevented or stopped mid-course. This disease stands alone. Yes, you always get those articles in the Daily Mail and other tabloids claiming to have the new cure for it, like you do for cancer and any other predominant health problems that are key in the world today but they usually never follow through. That is why this disease is such a problem for us today and something more people should be aware of. Let’s please just get rid of the clichés, get back to what really happens and then find ways to help those dealing with this if only for short term gain.
This is where music enters the equation (I promise this article is linking together). Music has the ability to access different parts of the brain to language, so it therefore has a capacity to communicate and engage with someone who has been diagnosed, even when they no longer speak or respond to other people’s words. It can change someone’s mood and help the person connect with the people around them. But put simply: it just makes so much sense. People respond to music from an early age, before any words or language have the chance to develop. So, if you continue this through to the end of life, when these skills once again do not exist, you can create what you had created before: joy, interest and a connection.
And no, I’m not just saying this. Here’s the (vague) science. A randomized controlled trial by Bruer and Spitznagel (2007) assigned patients to either music therapy or an age appropriate cook. A cognition test, conducted 3 times a day, gave better scores for those using music therapy, especially for the following morning. And while these signs may not always be noticeable, it is not hard to see some visible signs: the point when the patient who seems lost in their dementia begins to tap their finger or the person who has not spoken to their closest loved one for months begins to mouth the words to some Frank Sinatra.
Yet, what comes out of all of this is not just for them, it is for me and you too. It is the knowledge that you have been able to change somebody’s day and the knowledge that you’ve helped them do something they wouldn’t usually be able to do. It is the knowledge that you’ve let their family members see another side to them and the knowledge that it may have given them some hope. But for me most importantly, it is the knowledge that once everything is over and there really is nothing more that anyone can do, you have done something. You’ve done something you enjoy doing and you have passed that joy on to someone else. Music really can shine a light to a place where nothing else can reach.