The Power of Music to Spark Memory

Feb 15, 2016

Doctors and nurses in military hospitals after World War Two saw the benefits of music.

They watched their patients improve under its sway. In recent years, scientists have shown it has special powers as we grow older. 

Musician Bill Connet plays for residents of Wesley Acres in Des Moines
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

It doesn’t take musician Bill Connet long to win over his audience at Wesley Acres retirement community in Des Moines.

“I’d like you to feel free to sing along, in fact I’d like you to sing along, if you’re neighbor doesn’t like your voice, just politely ask them to move away," he says to laughter as he's about to start a sing-a-long. "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . .”

Connet is beginning a tuneful stroll down memory lane with around 50 residents at Wesley Acres in Des Moines. He strums out songs by Irving Berlin, Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers as the crowd joins in. Connet makes some 240 appearances at retirement communities and care centers during a year. Many of his gigs come through the non-profit Merrymakers, which supplies professional entertainers for senior living facilities. They include some of Central Iowa’s best – Rob Lombard, Janey Hooper and Max Wellman. Connet says the songs he plays tap into memories and feelings.

“Music is a wonderful trigger for positive emotions,” he says.

Wesley Acres resident Doris Wood agrees. She’s smiling and holding on to dear, romantic remembrances following the sing-a-long.

“They were songs that took us back to our childhood," she says. "And our teenage years when we might be going dancing or be with a lover or whatever.”

Wood says it was nice to lose herself in the songs and to escape, if only for an hour, the world’s irritations.

“Like the election that’s coming up.” she laughs.

Residents of Wesley Acres in Des Moines sing and clap along to the music of Bill Connet
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

Scientists have taken strides in recent years in unwrapping the mysteries of the human brain. They are finding special music rooms in the brain where the lights stay on even as areas tied to language and memory turn off in Alzheimer’s patients and other people with dementia. The executive director of Aging Resources in Des Moines, Joel Olah, has studied the research.

“You can see in settings where people don’t have a lot of stimulation and are not responsive to their environment, music breaks through,” he says.

Olah says he has witnessed the magic music casts over people with memory loss.

“I have seen in the course of a half hour, or whatever, this person does start to move and does start to react,” he says.

Around half of musician Bill Connet’s performances are staged in assisted living places where many in the audience are sinking into dementia. Those shows are very different, much quieter.

“I always assume people hear it and they’re enjoying, it and that it’s bringing back some memories,” he says.

Connet has written a song about the power of music to reach a damaged brain. It’s called “The Words to the Song,” inspired by his father-in-law, who never recovered from surgery to remove a brain tumor.

“When the music began, he moved his lips, and silently joined the song, when the music began he still knew all the words and soundlessly sang along,” Connet sings.

Connet says it was through music our early, early ancestors communicated. It’s deeply ingrained, he says, in what it means to be human. Music is what we remember to the end.