“Where words fail, music speaks.”
– Hans Christian Andersen
Music is a universal language that feeds the soul.
People connect with music on another level that involves the brain in ways that neuroscientists are still exploring (learn more here). While the science behind music and memory is nascent (research is primarily observational at this point), there is reason to believe that music can stir memories in people with dementia. For the past two years, LA Opera, the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and the Alzheimer’s Association of Southern California have partnered to bring music – and perhaps memories – to patients living with memory loss, Alzheimers disease and other forms of dementia in a program called “Music to Remember.” During the performances, LA Opera teaching artists sing holiday carols to residents (and workers) in long-term care and assisted living facilities throughout Los Angeles, suffering from dementia. Postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from the ZNI who work on the neurobiology of aging and memory accompany the group of teaching artists and observe the effects their singing has on patients.
Why Holiday Carols?
Singing holiday carols seems to be the key. Holiday carols were primarily chosen for this program, because of their annual recurrence. People hear holiday carols year-after-year on radio, television, film, etc. These songs are universal to the majority of the population. Since starting the partnership in 2013, LA Opera artists and ZNI students have noticed that their singing does have an impact. Patients, who were previously non-verbal, started making sounds and smiling at the singers. Other patients were even more animated than usual, tapping their fingers and feet.
The Bigger Picture
At this point, ZNI students are merely observing the connection between music and memory. But, it brings into mind the bigger picture: the connection between music and medicine, overall. Through its Visions & Voices Initiative, USC is hosting a performance and discussion called “Music and Medicine: Experiments and Explorations” on March 31st to discuss that very issue. As part of the Medical Humanities, Arts, and Ethics Series, which engages core health issues in society today, the event will bring together experts in neuroscience, gerontology child and adolescent psychiatry with celebrated musicians – including LA Opera teaching artists – for an afternoon of music and conversation about how music influences the human brain.
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