Music is a Powerful Tool for Memory!

Has a song ever come on the radio and you’re instantly transported back to a time from your youth?  It’s more than just a memory—it’s so vivid you can practically smell it and taste it and feel it.  In fact, the detail may be sharper than something much more recent.


Record player

Why is that?

Music can help to encode memories. The very structure of music—with melody and phrasing—makes it easier to recall later.  When young children are trying to learn the alphabet, we often use a sing-song tune to make it easier to remember and sing along, “now I know my A, B, C,’s…”.  The tune of the music serves as a cue for memory. When your brain struggles to retrieve the information from the hippocampus directly, the cue of the melody and rhythm associated with the information provides an alternate route to access the same information.


If you try and memorize a list of words, you’d be using your explicit memory.  Explicit memory is intentional—you concentrate on recalling the past. It’s the type of memory that allows you to answer factual questions like: who, what, where, when and why. 


Implicit memory, on the other hand, is less intentional. It happens almost unconsciously as you absorb information through a combination of all of your senses, and thus uses numerous parts of the brain.  Implicit memory is often very powerful and connected to a strong emotional reaction.  Music connects to implicit memory and can often draw out strong emotions.


When that song comes on the radio and instantly transports you back to your youth, it is implicit memory that is connecting the music and emotion.  In fact, the emotion you feel may not even match the emotion in the song; a sad song may evoke memories of a happy time, or a happy song could be associated with a sad memory.  You may also notice that the music which triggers the strongest memories typically comes from your youth—your teenage years and your twenties. 


This time in life is characterized by gaining independence and having many new experiences, all set to the soundtrack of the era. Often, it will be the pop music of the era, the top 20 or top 50 hits that are being played everywhere you go which further cement the memories and the music as being very specific to that timeframe.


Because music connects to implicit memories and strong emotions of the past, it can be a successful tool to help people access memory when their explicit memory system is not retrieving memories as efficiently.  If someone’s explicit memory has been damaged by dementia or Alzheimer’s, or if they’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury such as a stroke, music can create a bridge to implicit memories.


a microphone for singing

Music can also affect speech.

While it would seem like singing and speaking are pretty similar functions, our brains perceive them as totally different activities.  Speaking is a left-brain activity whereas singing is a right brain activity.  When someone suffers a stroke to the left side of their brain, speech is typically affected.  They may have expressive aphasia where they know exactly what they want to say, but the words won’t come out.  Fascinatingly though, people with aphasia are often able to sing!  If the left-brain stroke did not affect the right side of the brain, then the ability to sing may remain intact. Once set to a melody, it becomes possible to utter words.


Initially, someone may be able to sing the words to a familiar song. Over time, they can train their brain to sing alternate words to the same familiar tune.


Beyond the possibilities of speech, music can serve as a form of communication. It is a way to connect with someone who otherwise can’t speak or otherwise communicate. It offers the opportunity to share a moment together where you can be completely present, enjoying the music. By selecting music that matches their youthful era, you can help your elderly loved ones to revisit strong, emotional implicit memories from their youth.  You may be surprised and delighted at the strong emotional reactions that music can create.


So break out the old records and cassettes, or create a custom playlist, and crank up the volume!

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Back to School!

September is synonymous with back-to-school time. Long after you’ve graduated, it’s hard not to feel the appeal of the fresh new school year that starts each September. The back-to-school advertisements start (far too early!) in the summer and remind everyone—even those who are not students—that the new school year is fast approaching.


With all the anticipation over new school supplies, different classes, reconnecting with old friends, and meeting new teachers, September is tinged with excitement.


the back of a yellow school bus


For some people though, September comes with a whole new set of challenges.  Those who are squeezed into the sandwich generation can feel the extra pressure that the school year brings.


The sandwich generation includes those who are caught between caring for their children, while simultaneously providing care to their ageing parents.  Those feeling the crunch in September are likely even members of the club-sandwich generation: mothers who have young children at home who are providing help to their parents and their grandparents at the same time.


Club sandwich members are lucky enough to be in families who have four living generations at the same time.  Their young children are the youngest generation, the hectic mother is the second youngest.  The grandmother may be in her 60’s or 70’s and the great-grandmother in her 80’s or 90’s.


The young mother is caught between raising her young children, getting them out the door on the first day of school and being there for them when they step off the bus at the end of the day and also helping her mother to care for the elderly great-grandmother whose needs have suddenly increased.


September may represent a time of excitement and fresh beginnings for many people, but for this sandwich generation young mother, it may mean increased stress and an even more hectic schedule as she’s attempting to ferry children to after school activities, help with homework, and also deliver meals to her nanna across town.


Those in the throes of the club sandwich generation need support to manage the needs of so many generations at once.  The help can take many different forms—extended family and friends, a nanny for childcare, a driver to chauffer children to all their activities, or a caregiver to support great-grandmother Nanna.


A professional caregiver can provide the support that Nanna needs, while also alleviating pressure off the young mother who is hoping to get her children’s school year off to a good start. September can be a time of exciting new beginnings for Nanna too!  She can look forward to meeting friendly caregivers who will become new friends. 


Who in your family or circle of friends might benefit from the back-to-school excitement of September by engaging the support of a professional caregiver?

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