Human beings are governed by rhythms. They influence our heartbeat, the cadence of our speech, and even when we fall asleep and wake up. Perhaps this is why we are so mesmerized by music.

“From lullabies to funeral songs, music is a part of our lives from the moment we enter the world until the moment we leave it,” says Diane Snyder-Cowan, director of the Elisabeth Prentiss Bereavement Center for Hospice of the Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio.

In her work, she uses a phenomenon called “entrainment,” whereby a person’s biological rhythms become synchronized with the music they’re listening to. Entrainment exerts such a powerful force that simply listening to and focusing on soothing music can help a person enter a more relaxed state of physical and mental functioning. Once a person enters this state, they’re better able to physically and mentally process things, from medications to emotions.

Snyder-Cowan is a professional music therapist and part of a specially-trained group of care providers who use melodies to achieve treatment goals. “This type of therapy is all about the intentional use of music to bring about a particular change; whether that change is therapeutic, emotional or spiritual,” she says.

Melodies May Be More Effective Than Medications

Music therapists work in a variety of different settings, from hospitals to halfway houses. In the elder care context, they can be found in senior care facilities, rehabilitation clinics and hospice and palliative care centers, helping aging adults manage everything from chronic pain to symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’ve seen the power of music so many times in older adults,” Snyder-Cowan recalls. “It’s such a powerful tool and can be accessed so easily.” One well-known application of music therapy is helping people with advanced dementia communicate and engage with their surroundings.

Read: How Music Affects Memory in People with Alzheimer’s

Music is particularly beneficial for people struggling with memory loss because it’s easier for them to access the memory of a melody than to recall a person’s name or a past event. “The memory of the song stays with them much longer than regular memories,” says Snyder-Cowan.

In some cases, music may be even more powerful than traditional medical interventions, such as prescription medications and physical therapy exercises.

A study conducted on a group of Finnish stroke survivors found that listening to their favorite tunes while recovering helped them regain their ability to recognize words and communicate. When compared to stroke sufferers who listened to audiobooks or nothing at all, those that listened to music for a few hours a day regained their verbal skills much faster. The music listeners were also less likely to be depressed and confused—two common post-stroke side effects.

German researchers discovered that people recovering from open-heart surgery had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after listening to classical music. Relaxing refrains also helped patients calm down pre-surgery. In some cases, listening to music before an operation was more effective in getting a person to relax than commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications.


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Managing Grief with Melodic Intervention

Music therapists also work with hospice care providers to assist terminal patients and their family members as they navigate the end-of-life and grieving processes.

Depending on the unique needs and wishes of the elder and their family, a music therapist can help create a compilation CD of songs that have special meaning to the dying person to give as a legacy gift after they have passed, compose a song about the person’s life, and select and play melodies meant to ease their physical and emotional pain as they transition out of this life.

A type of music therapy that is used specifically in palliative care is called music-thanatology. Specialists in this field closely observe their patients’ vital signs and tailor their music to the situation to ease symptoms like pain, labored breathing and sleeplessness. Music-thanatologists typically use a harp and their voice in this process.

Read: Music-Thanatology: Providing Harmony at the End of Life

Government Reimbursement for Music Therapy

Professional music therapy services may be covered by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid if certain requirements are met.

Music therapy is considered a form of “activity therapy” under Medicare guidelines and must be formally prescribed by a physician to meet a specific goal. A treatment plan must be drawn up and improvement must be proven after a certain amount of time.

Guidelines for Medicaid coverage vary by state and may or may not be covered for seniors.

Harnessing the Healing Power of Music at Home

You don’t have to be formally trained to help your loved one enjoy the holistic benefits of music. While live music offers a richer and more personalized experience for listeners, recorded music can still be of value. Snyder-Cowan offers some suggestions for how caregivers and their loved ones can bond over song from the comfort of home:

  • Make your own music. If you or your loved one had a passion for playing an instrument, don’t hesitate to dust off the old six-string and strum out a few chords. “Live music has its own set of special rewards,” says Snyder-Cowan.
  • Travel to another time or place. Music and memory are intimately intertwined. To help your loved one get in touch with their past, try playing music that was popular when they were in their twenties and thirties.
  • Match tempo and temper. No one genre of music is more therapeutic than another. According to Snyder-Cowan, it’s all about personal preference. Pick songs that you and your loved one enjoy listening to. Keeping the principal of entrainment in mind, try to align the songs with the mood you’re trying to promote.
  • Highlight hobbies. For example, your loved one may not be able to dress up and visit the opera like they used to, but that doesn’t mean they have to forgo their favorite arias. You can help bring the opera to them by purchasing or downloading some of their favorite performances and playing them. The same goes for any genre of music they enjoy or that applies to other hobbies they loved, like dancing or playing a specific instrument.