Music to the Mind

Discusses how certain kinds of music appear to aid memory recall on elderly men and women with dementia. Types of sounds beneficial to recall.

By Lauren Murphy, published May 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016



Having trouble remembering things you used to know so well? Try turning on the radio, and it might come back to you.

According to one study on elderly men and women with slight to severe dementia, certain kinds of music appear to aid recall. While the research, presented recently to the British Psychological Society, focused specifically on senior citizens, the results might also help other adults, such as those who are in school.

Researchers at the University of London interviewed 23 elderly people about their life experiences, though many of them experienced memory loss so severe they could sometimes not even remember their spouse's name. The University of London researchers, Elizabeth Valentine, Ph.D., and Nicholas

Foster, a Ph.D. candidate, focused specifically on what types of sounds are beneficial to recall, as they had already determined in previous studies that music is a memory aid.

It turns out that the subjects' ability to recall their pregolden years was sharper when upbeat music was played. Whether they knew the melodies did not matter; the scientists say it's the pulse of the music--and therefore the body--that counts. "It gets the general level of the system up" Valentine explains.

While researchers aren't sure why music stimulates the memories of old folks with failing minds, they do believe that providing background music--especially if it's a catchy tune--to an older relative will help her tell the story of her life.