Music has power. It has the amazing ability to spark compelling outcomes for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Different studies have confirmed that our musical memory is retained. It can link a song with special memories of events or relationships. When using music as therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, it can shift their mood, stimulate positive interactions, manage stress-induced agitation, and facilitate cognitive function.
This power of music therapy happens because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses rely on little to no mental or cognitive processing. It is influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues.
Now, I know that's a mouthful....but...basically, a person’s ability to engage in music remains intact late into the stages of the Alzheimer’s. This is because it doesn’t require mandate cognitive functioning for success.
Choosing Piano Lessons as Music Therapy
Music therapy for Alzheimer’s doesn’t differ too much from music therapy given to others. It is the effect that it has on the person that changes with their circumstances.
Piano lessons as music therapy may help a person with Alzheimer’s to communicate better, to remember better, and even to function at a higher cognitive level...especially when that person loves music and grew up making music.
According to Dr. Quin, a Registered Music Therapist, playing an instrument is one of the major activities that make musical therapy successful for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Playing the piano can decrease difficult behaviors related to Alzheimer's.... and as you guide them on this road of learning music, their socialization increases because of the interaction that is motivated through the piano lessons.
The success of piano lessons depends on the adaptation of the music and activities to cater for the specific needs and the stage of Alzheimer’s. Small changes can result in maximum participation.
The 'How To' Part...
How you will approach the piano lessons will depend on the student. Their history with music, their current situation with regards to the Alzheimer’s, and their emotional well-being needs to continually be under the microscope.
With the different challenges that come along with teaching the piano to someone with Alzheimer’s, it’s important to be flexible with the lessons. Accept that some days will go well and others won’t.
During the early stage of Alzheimer’s, it’s important to get an idea of what kind of music the person likes. So take the time to listen to the music they liked in the past and pay attention to the perceptual changes. If they say it is terrible, listen to them and switch it off.
Depending on their endurance and temperament, you can also take them to concerts to encourage an individual who played the piano to try it again. Once they have explored the world of music, compile a musical history of their favorite songs which can be used to help in reminiscence and memory recall during their lessons.
It’s important for them to explore music in the beginning. The way they react will offer guidance during the piano lessons.
Early to Middle Stages
Marking the notes on the song sheets and the piano’s keys will help the student to draw the line between the note and the sound. And using song sheets give them the opportunity to sing along with their old-time favorites as they play.
The mood of the person can be enhanced if you play ambient music in the background during the piano lessons. The purpose isn’t listening to it specifically, but to create a calming atmosphere for the student to learn in.
While the student is playing, the piano teacher may play or sing the music as the student plays along. This helps them to stay in rhythm as well as to improve the interaction.
To improve the effectiveness of the piano lessons as music therapy, teachers will utilize the music collection of the student’s favorites they made during the early stage. Most of these songs will shape the foundation of the lessons.
Doing sing-alongs with songs that were popular in that person’s generation helps in preparing them for piano lessons in terms of memory recall and communication. By using similar rhythms throughout the lesson, the student makes an easier connection on a cognitive level.
Rhythm-based activities with familiar songs help to arouse memories, creating an exciting environment. This can affect their ability to communicate and to socialize.
Assistive Technology Available
A combination of technology and the art of music is no longer just an idea of the future. The future is now. With today’s transition from standard pianos to electronic pianos and keyboards, the music world has almost no limits. Not even for those who are living with Alzheimer’s...
Named after the famous composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Wolfie app combines music learning and technology. The app allows the student to not lose or forget their place in the music with a patented Magic Cursor, which follows the notes in real time.
Wolfie has a wide variety of scores that range from beginner to advanced and is constantly adding new scores.
This is a great way to introduce piano music and the rhythm to those that are in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. The Touch Pianist shows brightly colored dots to guide the student in playing the piano. And every touch of a key on the keyboard plays the next set of notes; allowing the person to experience the joy of playing the piano.
This smart piano and keyboard is another major development in learning the piano. By following the piano’s lead, it allows the student to play along to their favorite songs.
Each key on the keyboard is fitted with a LED light that lights up to show the student what they need to play. So, when you connect your tablet or smartphone, the keyboard guides them in learning the song.
The One also gives an opportunity to play various games focused on teaching you the theory side of playing the piano. As the student becomes more comfortable, you have the option of switching off the LED lights or the score.
Music Brings Them Back To Themself
Even though science may not have all the answers to Alzheimer’s, playing the piano serves as great music therapy. It gives their brain the opportunity to function at its maximum capacity for that time; giving those who seem unresponsive a moment in time to be more of themselves.
About the Author: Helen Baker
I am a freelance teacher and writer based in Ann Arbor, MI. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, I spent some time teaching English in Paris and, thereafter, returned to Ann Arbor where I was involved both in the media and academics. Currently I am a stay at home mom, working as a freelance writer and teacher. I love all my guitars and I also have an affinity towards old grand pianos. I love singing, traveling, reading, writing, watching films and spending quality time with my husband.