Aging, Alzheimer's Disease, Consciousness, Memory, Mood and Emotion and Social Behaviour, Neurodegeneration

Unlocking dementia: Finding memories through music


It’s a warm summer evening. You’re driving in your car when a song comes on that suddenly reminds you of an experience you had many years ago. You remember the experience so well it transports you back in time.

Over our lifetime, we collect countless memories from all aspects of our lives, but are only ever aware of a handful of memories at a time. Many things can trigger a memory, but it’s often music that evokes memories and induces a sense of nostalgia – it can even do this for someone with dementia.

Why does the brain tie memories so closely to music, and what is triggering this connection?

Western University BrainsCAN Postdoctoral Associate, Swathi Swaminathan is studying the mechanisms in the brain that give music the ability to bring memories forward to our conscious awareness. The goal is to use this knowledge to assist those with dementia.  

Swathi Swaminathan

BrainsCAN Postdoctoral Associate, Swathi Swaminathan is studying the mechanisms in the brain that give music the ability to bring memories forward to our conscious awareness.

“Music is a cue that is very closely related to emotions, just as autobiographical memories are. So music may be an effective trigger for autobiographical memories because it engages emotion-related pathways,” said Swaminathan, a BrainsCAN researcher in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Social Science. “We have found that when people listen to music, they perceive the emotion that the musician is trying to convey and use these perceptual cues to find a memory. But what’s interesting is that people also use how the song makes them feel (regardless of the emotion they identify from the perceptual cues of the song) as additional cues to accessing memories from their lives.” 

Researchers have long understood that these musical connections in the brain seem to be spared for some individuals experiencing cognitive decline, at least until very late in the disease. Understanding if there’s a difference between memories linked to perceptual or emotional cues will help researchers dig deeper into the brain’s pathways, learning what kind of memory attaches to each mechanism, and the quality of that memory. 

“What I’m still testing is if that perceptual mechanism might be more impacted by cognitive decline,” said Swaminathan. “We think that the emotional mechanism is likely to be more helpful than the perceptual mechanism in the case of dementia, just because their ability to feel emotions is likely to be spared compared to their cognitive abilities. So engaging the felt emotion pathway may result in more successful reminiscence than engaging the perceptual pathway.”

Using music for reminisce-based therapy

While music is often used to reduce agitation in those with dementia, as well as relieve stress and create a calming atmosphere, this research may help caregivers use music even further. A better understanding of the brain’s mechanisms for music and memory will lead to improved therapies for those with cognitive decline.

“If a person has engaged with music all their life, or if they simply loved music before the onset of dementia, a musical reminisce-based therapy is likely going to be more successful for them than for others,” said Swaminathan. “Caregivers can draw attention to how the person is feeling when they’re listening to a song, and that might help them access memories more successfully.”

Why are memories and music important for those with dementia?

“Our autobiographical memories are crucial to our sense of personal identity,” explained Swaminathan. “Remembering our life’s accomplishments is important for us to feel like our lives have meaning. So anything that can supplement our ability to stay in touch with our memories, especially positive ones, will probably improve our wellbeing drastically.” 

Even if music doesn’t bring back vivid memories from the past, it still may be beneficial for a person with dementia.

“[Music] allows you to capitalize on the person’s preserved strengths,” said Swaminathan. “I see it as one additional thing that can make people’s lives better.”


September is World Alzheimer’s Month and 2021 marks the 10th year of this global awareness raising campaign. Each year, World Alzheimer’s Day is recognized on September 21.