Remembering Music With Alzheimer’s Patients

Students await to play during the music therapy workshop with Alzheimer's patients. Photo by Tato Baeza

After reading an article in the newspaper El País about the benefits of music therapy and how the Fundación Alzheimer España (FAE) was using it to treat Alzheimer’s patients, José Antonio Gordillo, science communicator and cultural manager in Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciènces, contacted the foundation to propose a collaborative project together with Berklee College of Music’s campus in Valencia, Spain, and the Asociación de Familiares de Alzheimer Valencia (AFAV). Gordillo says, “2016 marks the 25th anniversary of AFAV. This is why we decided to take a step further and involve several stakeholders with a unique goal: rescuing the biographic memories of Alzheimer’s patients through music.”


This planted the seed for Remembering Music, a music therapy workshop which took place on September 21—coinciding with World Alzheimer’s Day—designed by Suzanne Hansen, leading expert, chair emerita, and professor of the Music Therapy Department at Berklee. The goal of the workshop was to acknowledge the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on families and to celebrate those who are coping with it.

“Music that is meaningful and stored in long-term memory can trigger an emotional response in an instant,” says Hansen. She adds that music therapy starts with this response, and uses it to guide a therapeutic process towards goals that enhance quality of life and physical, mental, social, and emotional functioning.

The multipurpose hall at Museu de les Ciències in Valencia saw 17 students from Russia, South Africa, the U.S., Ireland, Hong Kong, Colombia, India, Spain, England, and South Korea perform Spanish songs sung by Josefa, Herminia, Lina, Antonia and MariCarmen, patients who suffer from early stages of Alzheimer’s and who form part of the choir Las Voces de la Memoria. The repertoire was selected by the patients together with the music therapist from FAE, Fátima Pérez. Pérez and Hansen coordinated the session where participants listened, sang, moved, danced, played instruments, and recited as students played their special music which included classic Spanish songs like “Las Mañanitas,” “La Casita de Papel” or “Muñequita Linda.”


A Joint Effort

Casey Driessen, the Contemporary Performance (Production Concentration) graduate program’s director, says that this session was not a “performance” where musicians were the main focus, but a platform to share music with the focus on the Alzheimer’s participants and the activity. “The hope was that through various exercises and activities tailored to each song, participants would have specific parts of their memory stimulated,” he says. Driessen also believes that from a performer’s point of view, this activity was also an opportunity to do greater community good with music outside of the more common path of solo performance.

Preparations started taking place two months in advance to discuss the intended activities and desired outcomes. “I generally had questions about how close to original recordings we needed to remain, instrumentation, arrangement, and activity that would accompany the songs,” says Driessen. On the week of the activity, Pérez, Hansen, Gordillo, Driessen and the students met for an informative session on what they might expect and to learn more about the disease.“It was an eye-opening experience. It evoked a realization for me that we take the simplest of cognitive tasks, such as short-term memory, for granted,” says student Stephen Hansen.


From the workshop, Pérez highlights the collaboration between all those involved and praises the students not only for their performance, which she said was “impeccable and beautiful,” but also for their sensibility towards the patients and caregivers and for the useful feedback they gave on performing for an unconventional audience. Hansen adds that “family members and their loved ones all participated actively in the special experiences that engaged them in positive, creative ways.”

Gordillo believes workshops like the one celebrated on September 21 have an enormous potential in terms of research and outreach and also to create social awareness of the “role between patients and caregivers, who, at the same time, also need to be cared for.”


After the workshop, a meeting took place between all parties involved. Pérez says that Hansen, Dr. Mercadal-Brotons—director of the Master in Music Therapy Program at Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya—and she are analyzing the results extracted from the session to publish them later on. “We’ve had a few ideas since Remember Music, and hopefully we will have progress to report as these ideas develop,” says Driessen.

Later on in the week, Hansen presented some of the research and clinical work supporting the life-changing impact of music therapy when she spoke about “Music: The Heart and Soul of People with Dementia” at the Valencia campus. The week culminated with Driessen and the students performing the same program at Un Lago de Conciertos concert in front of a large crowd of locals, visitors, Alzheimer’s patients, and their relatives in front of the museum.

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