Soul music

The effects of music on the mind and the self shouldn't be underestimated.

Illustration by Emily Chandler

Illustration by Emily Chandler


Field Studies is a monthly column by Clare Watson, who travels around Australia and the world exploring science by participating in studies, visiting research institutes, going on trips with scientists, and a lot more.

Monday, November 7th, 2016

Musicians usually want to capture and enthral their audience, but Max Richter has composed a piece of music that he hopes will put people to sleep. Drawn together by Richter’s aching piano, SLEEP is an eight-hour long, at times cyclical, classical arrangement to span the night. It is, in his words, a lullaby for a frenetic world and an exploration of how music interacts with consciousness.

Music can take us to many places. It carries our mind off on a beat or a memory. It is written with rich emotion and, without consent, arouses them in the listener too. Music can pick us up, make us move, or soothe a wired mind. It is engaging and persuasive; therapeutic too. 

Tales of musical therapy are a testament to its power: stroke patients who are unable to vocalise a single word have rerouted the neurons in their brain with music to speak fluently in song; likewise singing is prescribed to help people overcome a stutter. Strong rhythms are known to calm shaky Parkinsonian gaits too. It is a visceral experience.

Music can also withstand the test of time. Some people have a sensitivity to music, a fine-tuned ear or nimble fingers, that comes from years of practice. This musicality is ingrained — it remains intact where other skills fade. Anecdotes of musicians with Alzheimer’s dementia are intriguing: their ability to play a musical instrument has, remarkably, been spared amidst severe memory loss. 

Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease, the most common cause of dementia. It is a frightening decline in memory, thinking and language skills. But where a train of thought can vanish mid-sentence, some musicians are still able to play their way through a whole piece of music with ease, each note leading onto the next. 

Clinical neuropsychologist Dr Amee Baird was inspired by these stories. Working closely with a several musicians in the grips of Alzheimer’s dementia, her research aims to unravel the strong connection between music and memory. Clinicians like Dr Bairdcan learn from individual case studies but strategic questions need to be asked of groups of patients in cohort studies to see how a theory stacks up.

To tease out whether musical skills are preserved in people with Alzheimer’s dementia above and beyond verbal memory recall skills, Baird has crafted a series of musical tasks for her patients that match the verbal memory tests psychologists commonly use. She asks patients to recall snippets of music they heard moments before — like you would be asked to recall three random words, or to improvise the ending to a musical phrase, or to finish a sentence with a sensible word. Episodic memory, or recalling when and where something occurred, is typically impaired in Alzheimer’s dementia, but the procedural or muscle memory of playing a musical instrument remains. 

The main risk factor for Alzheimer’s dementia is age and as it goes our population has many grey hairs. Frankly, modern medicine now commits the elderly to the care of strangers where once it was the responsibility of the family unit. Albeit necessary at some point, when someone is moved into an aged care facility they are isolated from their earlier life. In the case of dementia, this may exacerbate memory loss. 

But music, sweet music, can restore a sense of self. Mrs B is one lady who Baird visits at the aged care facility across the road from the Australian Hearing Hub. At the chapel piano, Mrs B doesn’t fancy playing any particular song. Instead, she picks sheet music from the piano stool like a lucky dip and, despite trembling hands, confidently assumes the posture of an accomplished pianist. For a long moment notes hang in the air and Mrs B is instilled with purpose again, an echo back to her days playing the organ at church.

Oliver Sacks, the famed neurologist and wordsmith, likewise described the resonating effect of music for his patients with dementia: “While it cannot be used as a sort of back door to explicit memory… it aims to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organization, and focus.”

These effects linger, Baird attests. After a dose of music, patients are more verbally fluent, able to answer simple questions and hold up their end of a conversation. Perhaps music is an easier language to tap into because it channels emotions; words alone don’t have the same sentiments holding them in place.

Music tends to elicit personal memories wrapped in nostalgia. We all know the fuzzy feeling: a song might remind you of a person or a period in your life. On the other hand, photographs usually evoke specific memories recited in greater detail. Comparing memories evoked by these different stimuli is another of branch of Baird’s research.

Too young to recognise many of the selected tunes, which were popular hits from the 1940’s and ‘50’s, the songs she played me sounded like a soundtrack to someone else’s life. Likewise, the photographic prompts depicted historic events before my time — but they did feed my imagination. 

When presented with a photo of a man saluting the end of World War II with his hat and quick step, dancing in a Sydney street littered with ticker tape, I thought instead of my grandmother. I pictured the sepia print that sits on my sideboard of her as a young girl being led by the hand. She is distracted by something, looking behind her mother and out of frame to the right, and I always wonder what had caught her attention — now I thought she could have been looking at the man dancing. The two photos merged in my mind.

Another question Baird is asking is whether music-evoked memories are stable over time. If musicality is robust, can the same be said of the memories elicited by songs? Our memories — of any kind — are not set in stone however confident we might be. Scientists have shown that each time we recall a memory it is exposed and subject to correction, so those memories which are most familiar to us may in fact be inaccurate. We can also unknowingly acquire false memories if misleading information is planted. 

With wartime jazz tunes stuck in my head, I left the building and walked the blurred line between my own memories and imagining others, only sure of one thing: our memories are precious.



Alive Inside is an uplifting film featuring Oliver Sacks that documents stories of musical therapy for dementia patients. For further listening in the same vein as Max Richter’s SLEEP, Elena Katz-Chernin is another musician crafting compositions to soothe the mind. She composed Blue Silence for her teenage son, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, to bring him respite from the noise and voices swarming around his head.

Edited by Jack Scanlan