How Music Therapy Benefits Older Adults and Reduces Stress

senior man with headphones

Music is an important part of our lives, from the first time we hear it to the last. 


Sometimes all we need is one song to remind us of the joys of our past. 


And sometimes all it takes is one song to inspire our future. 


The benefits of music are so real, that it’s become a proven form of therapy backed by science. 


What is Music Therapy?


Music therapy is an art and science that uses the power of music to help people improve their physical, emotional, social, cognitive, behavioral, and spiritual well-being. 


Research suggests music therapy is a valuable therapeutic tool that includes singing, listening, composing music, and playing instruments. 


You don’t necessarily have to have any talents or skills to reap its benefits or participate in this therapy. You only have to let go and enjoy!


Which makes sense considering when you think of music, it might bring up thoughts of a song that makes you want to dance or sing. And it’s often something we enjoy for the sheer entertainment value alone. 


But it’s an art form that comes with so much more. 


And it’s been used for centuries to heal and improve the quality of life.


So much so that in 1945, the US War Department used music therapy to help military service members recovering in hospitals. While 1945 isn’t exactly centuries ago, this is when music therapy was formally defined.


To give you guidelines for when music therapy works best, in this article we explore the benefits of using music in therapy, and also share some suggestions for what types of songs might be appropriate for various situations.  


If you’re looking for an enjoyable way to increase your mood or help manage physical pain without taking medication, read on.


Benefits of Music Therapy for Older Adults

The power of music is widely documented in studies that show it reduces stress, anxiety, and depression while boosting self-confidence and mood. 


Music therapy is a growing field with strong research evidence showing its benefits for older adults – not just as an enjoyable activity, but also as a treatment.


How Music Promotes Better Cognitive Function, Concentration and Memory

Music and memory have a longstanding relationship. 


Your brain’s synapses are like “muscles” and the more you use them, the stronger they become. Music is a proven, excellent way to exercise these cognitive functions because music engages both hemispheres of the brain at once.  


“Music imprints itself in the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring memory. Music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

Dr. Oliver Sacks


Engaging in musical activities is a powerful way to keep your brain young. 


In fact, musical training has shown to have protective effects on cognitive function, as people who engage in musical performance throughout their life exhibit better mental health. 


The study also shows that late-life music training has similar effects on cognitive function as lifelong musical training. 


Basically, the participants in the study who took up music later in life saw improvements to their general cognitive function comparable to those of people with a lifetime history of playing an instrument.


Gentle nudge: if you’re not a musician, it’s never too late to start your musical training.


(And if you need more nudging, check out these impressive late bloomers.)


What’s more, a newer study shows that older adults can improve their memory through improvisational music. 


The participants had greater both immediate and delayed memories than those not involved with the improvisational music activities. 


improvisation in music improves memory
Improvisation improves memory. Source: NCBI


The study results also suggest that musical activities are a powerful intervention tool among older adults who suffer from poor memory and concentration.


How Music Improves Communication Skills

Do you often find yourself trying to get your point across but getting lost in the details? 


It can sometimes be difficult to express yourself and even feel impossible to communicate with others. 


The good news: Music has a way of improving your communication skills. 


It inherently encourages interaction and communication. And, that’s not the only way in which music encourages communication. 


senior couple holding hands and dancing
Music brings us closer together and facilitates communication. Source: Unsplash


Many studies observe that music therapy can help dementia patients who often see a decline in their speech skills. 


How can music help with speech? 


When listening to music, the brain uses different regions simultaneously which are related to hearing and emotional processing; this allows for improved attention spans and more fluid speech patterns. 


Music even helps those who are nonverbal by inspiring them to express themselves through hand and feet movement, singing, humming, etc. 


How Music Helps Fight Depression

Another benefit of music therapy is it’s an effective tool for someone battling depression. It can help you feel emotionally better, more connected with others and yourself, and it might even improve your physical health. 


Plus, if you connect with others through music, you’ll have the added benefits of being social, something that’s hugely important the older we get.


There are many different types of music that people use to fight the blues, and no matter what type you choose to listen to, this is an effective way to take care of yourself through one of life’s toughest battles.


senior. couple dancing outside
Music has uplifting effects on your mood. Source: Unsplash


It goes without saying that music can uplift your spirit spontaneously. 


It can elevate your mood and simply give you the will to live. 


The older adult participants who participated in music intervention projects showed impressive improvements. 


table from a study showing how music intervention programs boost your mode and alleviate depression
Music intervention programs boost your mood and decrease depression. Source: NCBI


Singing or playing an instrument can improve your mood and reduce the symptoms of depression. So grab that old guitar you’ve been meaning to learn how to play, sign up for some music lessons and start strumming away. You’ll be glad you did!


How Music Reduces Stress and Anxiety

Researchers from Stanford University claim that listening to music can change brain functioning and reduce anxiety as much as medication.


Music is not only good for the soul but also, it’s been proven time after time by science that songs have a large impact on how you physically feel in your body. 


For example, fast-paced tunes will give you energy whereas slower ones are perfect for relaxation and relax your muscles while releasing stress.


According to clinical psychologist Harold Russell at the University of Texas:


“For most of us, the brain is locked into a particular level of functioning. If we ultimately speed up or slow down the brainwave activity, then it becomes much easier for the brain to shift its speed as needed.”


When Should You Use Music as a Therapeutic Tool?

From treating mental illness to easing pain, music can be utilized as a vital instrument in many ways. 


But when should you use it? And what type of music? 


While Getting Ready For Your Day

In the morning, when you’re feeling sluggish or in need of a boost, try listening to your favorite music for 10 minutes before starting your day. 


It could be instrumental classical compositions like Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in D minor Op 125 “Choral” which are soothing yet energetic enough to get you out of bed on those really tough mornings. 


Beethoven's Symphony No 9 in D minor Op 125 "Choral" herbert von karajan
Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in D minor Op 125 “Choral”


Or it might be something more upbeat and familiar like John Coltrane’s rendition of My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music soundtrack, which will start your day with an invigorating burst of color.


John Coltrane's rendition of My Favorite Things
John Coltrane’s rendition of My Favorite Things


There’s strong evidence that playing music while doing even the most mundane activities could have a profound effect in putting you at ease. Put on the right kind of music and start the day on a healthy note (literally).


While Doing Chores or Other Productive Activities

We all know how tedious chores can be. The monotony and repetition can cause us to lose focus or become bored. 


But what if we could turn the chore into a game? What if we could have fun while doing it?


Put on your favorite songs, start singing, and make it your own private concert. It makes the time go by faster and can make mundane tasks more enjoyable.


Not to mention, productivity studies show that listening to music boosts your production of even repetitive tasks by decreasing your margin of error.


Listening to music boosts your production of even repetitive tasks, and reduces error
Listening to music boosts your production of even repetitive tasks, and reduces error. Source: Gwern


Music adds flavor to an otherwise menial tedious task, even while on the job.


Before Going to Bed

What are you doing right before bed? 


If you’re like most people, chances are, you’re either watching TV or reading a book (and hopefully, you’re not scrolling mindlessly on your phone). 


Regardless of your nightly wind-down activity, listening to music before going to bed can improve sleep quality on the very first night. It helps people fall asleep and stay asleep. 


(By the way, if you’re among the common trend of having a difficult time catching your z’s, check out these 11 sleep tips.)


Whether you use it for relaxation or as background noise to distract yourself from spinning thoughts, music is a simple way to improve your sleep hygiene. Make it a part of your nighttime routine and reap immediate benefits.


Incorporate Music into Your Routine

If you or someone in your life is struggling with a mental health condition, it’s worth looking into this therapeutic method. 


The next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious and feel like yelling at the world, try taking a break from all of that noise by plugging in your headphones and playing calming music instead. 


Happy listening…




This article was co-authored by Curtis Dean, who writes on behalf of Sage Music School Sage Music bases lessons on the science and research of the psychology of learning. Their effective teaching methods create confident and capable students who enjoy the happiness of making music.

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