Music Listening & Alzheimer’s Disease

How Does Music Listening Change the Brain for those with Alzheimer’s disease?

After watching a video for a recent training, I was simply blown away when the presenter shared the results of this study.  I already knew that when a patient with Alzheimer’s disease listened to music that they knew, that they were often able to sing the words and it brought a smile to their face.  I had witnessed that in numerous sessions in the past, but what I didn’t know was just how much the music penetrated the brain of the patient.

In a pilot study by Fischer, Churchill, Leggieri, Vuong, Tau, Fornazzari, Thaut and Schweizer, researchers examined both musicians and non-musicians.  Investigators stated, “The purpose of our study is to examine whether a program involving listening to long-known music for 1 h[our] a day for 3 weeks results in changes in brain structure and function and corresponding improvements in global memory performance for patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or early AD” (p. 820).  

When setting up the criteria for this study, research assistants met with each qualified patient and had them pass some basic tests for cognition and that they did not have any “significant medical needs” (p. 821).  Each participant had a listening list, including music that they did not know mixed with music that they identified as “well-known” to them.  Caregivers assisted with helping make sure the participant focused on the music and asked questions as directed by the research staff.

MRI’s (magnetic resonance imaging) captured the images of different levels of the participants’ brains to help determine the effects of the music listening.  Researchers saw a change in the participants’ brains as a result of this study with differences being evident between those who were classified as musicians and those who were classified as non-musicians. In regard to the cognitive assessment done prior to the music listening activity versus the results after the activity, the study “demonstrated modest improvements in cognitive functioning” (p. 831).

What is exciting for me as a music therapist who often works with patients experiencing cognitive decline, is that music listening can be used as an intervention in slowing the decline process.  While this doesn’t mean we should all start listening to music we love and hope we don’t get Alzheimer’s disease, this study does show that purposeful, directed music interventions directed by a board-certified music therapist can play a role in improving the quality of life for those suffering in the early stages of cognitive decline.

For more information on music therapy, visit our website at or the American Music Therapy Association’s website at

Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC

Neurologic Music Therapy Fellow

Central Ohio Music Therapy, LLC

Fischer, C. E., Churchill, N., Leggieri, M., Vuong, V., Tau, M., Fornazzair L. R., Thaut, M. H., & Schweizer, T. A. (2021).  Long-Known Music Exposure Effects on Brain Imaging and Cognition in Early-Stage Cognitive Decline:  A Pilot Study.  Journal of Alzheimer’s disease 84, 819-833.  DOI: 10.3233/JAD-210610