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Music Can Do What?

You may have heard about music therapy, and you certainly have heard the often misquoted: “Music doth have charms to soothe the savage breast.”  But does it work?  Music therapy, that is.  There actually has been a fair amount of research into how music can address some of the issues that trouble people, and some scientists in the Netherlands have scoured the scientific literature to see if music can be of help with patients who have Alzheimer’s.  Specifically, they looked to see if a case could be made that music can help relieve the agitation, aggression or depression of dementia patients.

In what is termed a “meta-analysis,” they examined a large body of literature to see what others have reported.  While they could not control for variables like the size of groups being tested or the therapeutic elements of the settings, they did offer some tentative conclusions:

  1. Music does not seem to have a measureable impact on a patient’s agitation. But the researchers suggest that there may be an effect, but since the therapy sessions may have been too long in duration, the effect may have been clouded by patients’ in ability to be stationary for the duration of the tests.  The “calm” that was expected also could have been clouded by social interactions among patients in a group setting.
  2. The findings were pretty much the same with aggressive behavior. There is no evidence. They could not sort out all the other background noise – not the music – to say with certainty that music reduced aggressive behavior.
  3. What did seem more clear is that patients who had been predisposed to depression seemed to have a lifting of their moods with music. While this was a more consistent pattern, it might also have been confounded by the fact that the music therapy took place in a social setting.  And isolation is one of the big causes behind depression.

When it comes down to it, we really cannot conclude that one kind of music will always have the same effect on all people.  The fact that there were some positive changes across most studies, however, suggests that it is more than a bunch of notes.  Music can make a positive difference for people who have cognitive issues…it simply may not be enough.  But at the end of the day, we may come back to the traditional rule about not doing harm.  If music is not a problem for people, then let the band play on.

Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.


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