The Sound of Music

A playlist of familiar songs can help improve the well-being of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Teresa Dumain Terri Bullock’s older sister, Adelia, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, when she was in her late 50s. As the illness progressed, she lost her memory and speech and became immobile. Then four years ago, Terri saw Alive Inside, a documentary about Dan Cohen, founder of the organization Music & Memory, which uses digital music players with individualized playlists to improve the quality of life for elders. The film captures poignant and powerful moments, one of which shows how listening to music helped reawaken some people with dementia.

Terri decided to try something similar for her sister. She taped “I Hear a Symphony” by Diana Ross and the Supremes, a song she remembers Adelia singing and dancing to when they were younger. To her delight, when the song filled the room, Adelia began to sway her hips and move her hands; she smiled and even sang along. “It was like magic,” says Terri. For Adelia’s 66th birthday, a month before her sister died, Terri made Adelia a personalized playlist of more than 80 of her favorite songs. “We sat there for hours and sang,” recalls Terri. “At one point Adelia even got up and pirouetted with her husband. I could see her happiness.”

Personalized music playlists can help promote well-being and enhance quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive impairments, says Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, a neurologist at the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Alabama, who witnessed the effect of music on his own father. When Dr. Potts’ father, who passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s, was in hospice the last few days of his life, he couldn’t respond or speak at all. “So we just stood around his bedside and sang the old church hymns he grew up with,” he recalls. “We were amazed when he actually sang with us, or at least mouthed the words.”

To make a playlist for someone you love, follow these tips from the Music & Memory organization.

  • Get the gear. You’ll need a computer or tablet; an iPod or other digital music player; and a pair of lightweight, adjustable, over-the-ear headphones.
  • Create a song list. Some digital music players hold up to 300 songs, others more. Aim for 80 to 100 selections in the beginning.
  • Focus on familiar music. Songs from the person’s own young adult years—when he or she was aged 18 to 25—may be the most engaging. The key is to choose tunes that have positive associations. Talk to family and friends for ideas, or, if possible, ask the person herself. What artists or songs did she listen to when she was young?

For more information or help setting up a playlist,visit

© 2016 American Academy of Neurology