What is Music Therapy? And how can it be used to help a person with dementia?

May 2, 2018


You may have read “Music Therapy sessions” written on an activity calendar in a long term care home, or you may have participated in a group session where everyone is situated in a circle and the music therapist is asking your loved one’s “Does anyone know the name of this song? or “I wonder who sang this particular tune?” Perhaps you’re wondering what is a music therapist and what do they do?


 Music therapy is a discipline in which credentialed professionals (MTA*) use music purposefully within therapeutic relationships to support development, health, and well-being. Music therapists use music safely and ethically to address human needs within cognitive, communicative, emotional, musical, physical, social, and spiritual domains.*Music Therapist Accredited (Definition from the Canadian Association of Music Therapists)


Music therapy sessions may be conducted individually or in group settings. When a music therapist first begins working with an individual their strengths and needs are assessed and then a treatment plan with goals and objectives is tailored to suit the needs of each person.


Training: Accredited music therapists, MTA, complete a Bachelor or a Graduate Certificate in music therapy and a 1000-hour supervised clinical internship.


Within dementia care music may be used to promote and maintain cognitive functioning, motor and social skills and provide an outlet to connect with one’s spirituality and with one’s self. 


Due to the uniqueness of each person music therapy individual and group sessions never look the same, however music therapy interventions may include:


  • Recreating music, engaging the individual in active music making through singing and playing an instrument. Themes are used for sessions, which help to orient the person to the time of year and time of day.

  • Listening to live music provided by the music therapist to encourage relaxation

  • Moving to recorded/live music to engage and promote fine and gross motor skills.

  • Song Writing: engaging the individual in coming up with lyrics/words of a song to promote creativity and engage socially.

    • Promote and Facilitate Cognitive functioning through fill-in-the-blank songs and being prompted by questions such as “Does this song bring back any memories for you?”


Benefits of music therapy for persons with dementia:

  • Music aids memory recall

  • Music helps decrease agitation and aggression for individuals diagnosed with dementia

  • Music therapy helps reduce depression and loneliness among seniors

  • Provides an opportunity for self-expression through singing/playing an instrument

Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, who an advocate of music therapy, wrote, “Music is part of being human…To those lost in dementia, music can have a power to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while.” I find the idea of music having power for someone to return to themselves both true and powerful!

(Oliver Sacks, M.D./Author Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain)


I have seen time and time again the power of music in my own work and in my own life. Music helps us connect to others and to ourselves. When in a music therapy session I am amazed at how a person can be transformed from perhaps sitting with a blank look on their face to remembering the lyrics to a song, engaging with others, toes tapping on the floor and they are restored, they are back to themselves. It’s as if familiar music has turned on a light inside, there is an awakening an awareness of “This is me, This is who I am.” To me when a person is reminded o