The Power of Music: Sounds That Heal

Caregivers can use music to make a difference in the lives of those with Alzheimer's Disease and other challenges like depression, autism, brain injury and more

Music Therapy caregiver caregivers alzheimers unforgettables singing headphones ears

Josephine Gruder (above) is a caregiver for her husband Herman, who suffers from Alzheimer's. — Photo by Simon Biswas

En español | The field of music therapy formally debuted in 1950, but has only recently gained many fans, including hospitals, adult day care and senior centers, and nursing homes. Health care professionals often refer patients to music therapists — the country has more than 6,000 music therapists nationally certified through the American Music Therapy Association and they can help you find one in your area. Health workers are also using music to treat a long list of conditions: depression, Tourette's syndrome, Huntington's disease, autism, Parkinson's disease, stroke, brain injury and cardiac disease. It can be part of pain management and cancer treatments.

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Lately, researchers have focused on how music can benefit those with Alzheimer's. Anecdotal evidence shows that music can tap memories and reduce anxiety, pain, heart rate and blood pressure. It can help accelerate healing, boost learning, improve neurological disorders and increase social interaction.

Research on how exactly music works on the brain is still in its infancy, but is suggesting that it may improve specific function such as speech and movement.

If you're taking care of someone who has difficulty moving or speaking, music can easily be incorporated into your daily caregiving routine. Music therapists offer these suggestions:

Select familiar songs

Most people remember music from childhood or when they were in their 20s. Does Mom love opera or show tunes? What songs make her dance?

After former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January 2011 and suffered brain damage, she was unable to speak. But her mother knew her favorite songs — "American Pie," "Brown Eyed Girl," "Over the Rainbow" — and along with Giffords' dad, husband and music therapist, surrounded her with the music she loved.

"Gabby could sing several words in a phrase, but couldn't put a three-word sentence together on her own," says her music therapist, Maegan Morrow, of TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston. Morrow had her sing her needs, such as "I want to go to bed" or "I'm tired." Help your loved one recall words by singing part of a familiar song and having her finish the line with you, or alone.


Find one of our Spotify playlists just below. You'll have to join the free service Spotify to hear the playlist on your desktop. On your mobile device, if you have the Spotify App installed, but aren't a member of the "premium" service, you'll hear the song you choose and others like it, but not the complete playlist. More on joining Spotify, and creating and sharing playlists here, along with the four other playlists we made to get you started.

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Music Therapy caregiver caregivers alzheimers unforgettables singing headphones ears

Josephine Gruder cares for her husband Herman, who suffers from Alzheimer's. — Photo by Simon Biswas

Choose your music source

Pick what works best for you: a CD player, an MP3 player or iPod, a tablet like an iPad or a Kindle, or a time-tested turntable and vinyl collection. No music of your own? Local libraries often have good CD selections.

The website will tailor a radio station to match your musical taste when you select an artist, song or genre. And offers a free guide to creating a personalized playlist. (Find music collections we've put together from the website Spotify to help you with caregiving.)

Use music to alter moods

Diagnosed with Parkinson's, Domenic Trifone, 59, of Newington, Conn., has difficulty walking and doing things on his own, which leaves the retired postal worker depressed. But when his wife, Susan, 56, plays Gregorian chants or opera, he is soothed. When she plays his favorite Billy Joel or Jim Croce songs, she'll often dance, pulling him up to join her.

Donna Poulos has seen the effect music has on her 90-year-old mother, Grace Long. "When I'd leave her house, my mother would be sad, but if I put on classical or opera, she wouldn't miss me. Instead, she'd wave good-bye, close her eyes and be transported by the music," says Poulos, a grade school music teacher from Los Altos, Calif. When Poulos is driving with her mother, Long sways to the music and taps her toes, or they sing old tunes such as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " and "This Land Is Your Land."

"I really think music is one of the things that has kept her alive and happy," says Poulos.

Gear music to activities

You can use music to get loved ones through transitions, whether it's moving from one room to another or on to a different task, says Alicia Clair, professor of music therapy at the University of Kansas. Play peaceful music when Mom is waking up. Pick up the pace with active, upbeat songs when getting her dressed for the day.

"One of the best ways to get directions across is to sing, rather than speak, them," says Clair, who for 20 years has used music therapy for people with dementia. "Never use loud, frenetic music," she warns. Need to coax a loved one into the shower? Put on Duke Ellington and dance together into the bathroom.

Make music together

Sitting together and listening to music can be bonding. Taking care of someone who can't communicate can make a caregiver feel lonely and unable to relate, but music can provide a way to connect that is profoundly meaningful.

A pilot study by New York University Langone Medical Center's Comprehensive Center on Brain Aging found that members of the Unforgettables, a New York City chorus made up of those with early to mid-stage Alzheimer's and their caregiving spouses and children, reported more self-esteem, better moods, less depression and a greater quality of life after 13 rehearsals and one concert.

Joe Fabiano, 65, has been bringing his wife, Anita, 65, to the two-hour weekly rehearsals since the chorus was formed two years ago. "This is something we can share," says Joe. "It makes me think of the old days, when we were happy." Says Anita: "It's good for my husband and helps me a lot. I like the camaraderie."

That camaraderie can also ward off the loneliness that often accompanies caring for those with dementia. Husbands, wives and partners appreciate being with others who are dealing with the condition. "Having a place where there are people who can be together in a supportive, caring group is wonderful," says Josephine Gruder. She brings her husband, Herman, 85, a former longshoreman.

Social worker Suzie Engel, 66, sang in the chorus with her mother, Norma, who died in January 2012. Engel still attends. "This group is like family," she says.

The Unforgettables' co-conductors, Dale Lamb and Tania Papayannopoulou, a music therapist from the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and a pianist/singer, teach the group breathing, vocalizing, musical memory exercises and movement—good stress relievers as well as mental and physical exercise for all.

Not a singer? Consider rhythm. Drumming with others later in life is also a growing trend, according to Encinitas, Calif., music therapist and author Christine Stevens, who teaches health care professionals and family caregivers about percussion. "You don't have to be musical whatsoever," says Stevens. In her hospital room, former Rep. Giffords participated in a drum circle with her family and friends. Remo, a drum manufacturer, offers a "health rhythms" section on their website that discusses the health benefits of drumming andhow to find a drumming group.

Tune in to your own needs

Music can be a great source of relief and pleasure. When her husband is at adult day care, during other times of the day, or before bed, Susan Trifone will turn on the tunes. "My body gets in rhythm to the beat and it makes me feel much better. But even more, music helps me get away from my everyday problems."

NEXT PAGE: Five playlists: all the music, plus links and complete instructions. »

Spotify Instructions:

Sign up for a free account at

  • Log in to Spotify with your new ID, or via Facebook
  • Once you're logged in on a desktop computer, clicking on the title of any Spotify playlist below will open the playlist in a new window
  • Clicking on "See More Tracks" at the lower right of the window will reveal the rest of the playlist
  • Click on the icon at left to start listening, or click on the number to the left of the title of the music. 
  • DON'T click on the title of the musical selection, which will bring you to that album and take you out of the playlist
  • Share the playlist with friends by tweeting or "liking" it 
  • On mobile devices, playlists only work to open a general "channel" — like a radio station which plays related music — because the full playlist experience is reserved for paying "premium" members
  • Remember, Spotify is only one way to share music; we have many channels of AARP Internet Radio for you to explore, and there are other services, like Pandora, or iHeartRadio, which allow you to create and explore "channels" of similar sounds


  1. Carole King — "You've Got A Friend"
  2. Joni Mitchell — "Both Sides Now"
  3. Johnny Cash — "If I Were A Carpenter"
  4. Crosby, Still, Nash — "Our House"
  5. Leo Kottke — "Arms Of Mary"
  6. Mark O'Connor — "Ashokan Farewell"
  7. Elton John & Leon Russell — "Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)"
  8. Eric Clapton — "Tears In Heaven"
  9. James Taylor — "How Sweet It Is"


  1. Rossini — William Tell Overture
  2. Mendelsohn — The Hebrides, Op. 26, "Fingal’s Cave"
  3. Wagner — "Ride of the Valkyries," from Die Walküre
  4. Mozart — Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201
  5. Bizet — Toreador’s Song from Carmen 
  6. Gershwin — An American in Paris 
  7. Strauss — "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (as heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey)
  8. Mendelssohn — Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Opus. 90 "Italian" IV. Saltarello: Presto
  9. Ravel — Bolero
  10. Verdi — Rigoletto, Act 4: "La Donna E Mobile"


  1. Grieg — Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46: Morning Mood
  2. Albinoni — Adagio for Strings in G Minor
  3. Beethoven — Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 "Emperor": II. Adagio un poco moto – III. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
  4. Mozart — Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major "Elvira Madrigan": II. Andante
  5. Pachelbel — Canon in D
  6. Strauss — "The Blue Danube Waltz," Op. 314
  7. Beethoven — Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 "Moonlight": III. Presto agitato
  8. Beethoven — Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 "Pathetique": II. Adagio cantablile
  9. Mendelssohn — Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64: II. Allegro molto appassionato
  10. Mendelssohn — Songs Without Words, "The Venetian Gondola"
  11. Rachmaninoff — Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18: II. Adagio Sostenuto
  12. Mozart — Clarinet Concerto in A Major,  K. 622: II. Adagio


  1. Duke Ellington — "Take The A Train"
  2. Glenn Miller & The Army Air Force Band — "In the Mood" 
  3. Count Basie – "Li'l Darlin'"
  4. Benny Goodman and his Orchestra — "Sing, Sing, Sing"
  5. Preservation Hall Jazz Band — "St. James Infirmary"
  6. Miles Davis — "Someday My Prince Will Come"
  7. Bill Evans — "Autumn Leaves"
  8. Dave Brubeck — "Take Five"
  9. Wynton Marsalis — "Where Or When"
  10. Lester Young — "On The Sunny Side Of The Street"
  11. Charlie Parker — "Just Friends"
  12. Frank Sinatra — "You Make Me Feel So Young" [From 1966 Live At The Sands]


  1. Mozart — Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  2. J.S. Bach — Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048: Allegro
  3. Vivaldi — The Four Seasons, Op. 8, “Spring”: Allegro
  4. G.F. Handel — Water Music Suite, No. 1 in F, HWV 348: III. Allegro - Andante - Allegro
  5. Mozart — Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550: I. Molto allegro
  6. Beethoven — Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61: III. Rondo - Allegro
  7. Mendelssohn — Songs Without Words, Book 6, Op. 67, No. 4: Presto ("Spinner’s Song")
  8. Beethoven — Coriolan Overture in C Minor, Op. 62
  9. Saint-Saens — Danse Macabre in G Minor, Op. 40
  10. Mendelssohn — Italian Symphony, Op. 90: 1. Allegro vivace
  11. Beethoven — Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 "Choral": II. Molto vivace
  12. Beethoven — Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 "Choral": IV. Presto – Allegro assai - "Ode to Joy"

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