Music and Memory Project

Cassandra Brown, Research Assistant (right), with Merle Domingo at the Alzheimer Society offices in the Rideaucrest Home. (Picture courtesy of the Kingston Whig-Standard, 21 March 2009)

Cassandra Brown, Research Assistant (right), with Merle Domingo at the Alzheimer Society offices in the Rideaucrest Home. (Picture courtesy of the Kingston Whig-Standard, 21 March 2009)

How we got started: One day several years ago my colleague Dr. Jacalyn Duffin and I fell into conversation about music and memory in dementia.  It was by happy chance that we arrived at the topic, as we come from rather different research backgrounds.   I am a cognitive psychologist in the Department of Psychology with a research interest in music and the brain.  Dr. Duffin is a hematologist and medical historian in the Faculty of Health Sciences.  Dr. Duffin asked me what cognitive neuropsychology had to say about the ability of people with dementia to remember music.  It was an intriguing question!

Dr. Duffin was aware that families and caregivers report that people with dementia often respond positively to musical events. But neither of us knew of any scientific-based evidence to support these reports.  We both went to the library to learn more.  Here we found that there was remarkably little material indeed, so we decided to think about conducting some research ourselves.

We were fortunate to test, with the consent of the family, a woman in the Kingston area whose severe dementia had not hampered her recollection and enjoyment of music. We played her phrases of familiar or unfamiliar tunes and simply observed her reactions. When (and only when) the tune was familiar, she smiled and sang along, often continuing when the phrase had stopped. Her score was virtually equal to those of our older controls.

This single observation implied several exciting things. First, it revealed that people with dementia can participate in music testing. Second, it suggested that correlation of the preserved musical memory with the sites of brain damage might eventually help to identify brain regions responsible for normal musical memory. Third, it could also contribute to our knowledge of dementia itself. Finally, it provided an explanation and an incentive for the role of music in the palliative therapy of people with dementia and their caregivers. In 2005, we published these observations in the journal, Medical Hypotheses.

To our great surprise, the Medical Hypotheses article won a prize. The media buzz led to radio interviews, which then resulted in a little flood of messages, from the Yukon to the Maritimes, describing people with dementia who still enjoyed musical memories.   

The next steps: Our paper was, however, just a first step because it was a single case study.  We needed to find out if musical memories were preserved in many more persons with dementia and across levels of dementia.  We needed more tests, and, for comparison purposes, we needed more data from young and older adults in the community as controls.

We were fortunate to receive funding both from the GRAMMY foundation and the Alzheimer Society of Canada to undertake a much larger study.  Our team developed to include Dr. Sudeep Gill in the Department of Geriatric Medicine, Cassandra Brown, Research Associate, and Ashley Vanstone, graduate student.  A number of undergraduate research assistants were also part of the team to help collect data and enter the results into the computer.

We have now tested over 200 people--young adults, older adults, and people with dementia-on a variety of music and cognitive tests.  Our tests include recognition of familiar melodies, detection of wrong notes in familiar melodies, and recognition of familiar lyrics spoken without the tune.  All of our participants find the tests easy, simple, and fun.  And we can now say with confidence that musical memories are present for many people with dementia.  Importantly, it is not necessary to be a musician to have these musical memories!  Musical memories can be tunes from the past that we all tend to have sung or hummed such as Happy Birthday, the Wedding March, Christmas carols, fire-side and camp songs, and so on.

What is Next?  We hope to continue our research using the knowledge that musical memories may be available.  Can a musical memory bring forth an associated nonmusical memory?   We would also like to ask questions about music and emotion. Can musical memories arouse feelings of relaxation and pleasure?  Can they help us enjoy the activities of daily living?

Further Information: If you would like to participate in future studies, or would just like more information without obligation, please contact us at the Acoustics Lab at Queen's AT 613-533-2490. You may leave a voice message at any time and we will get back to you as soon as we can.

Participation can be in your own home, or our offices, whichever you prefer.  Time commitments are about a few hours, split into several sessions.

Thank you to all members of the community who have participated in our research, to those of you who have expressed continued interest and support, and to our funding agencies, named above, who made the research possible.

Related Publications

Cui, A. X., D’Mello, D., Crocker, M., & Cuddy, L. L. (2019, September). ‘Have you danced to this?’ – Embodied music and memory. Flash talk to be presented at CIM19, Graz, Austria.

Crocker, M., D’Mello, D., Cui, A. X., & Cuddy, L. L. (2019, June). Motoric engagement may underlie the preservation of musical memories in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. Poster session to be presented at the Department of Psychiatry Research Day, Kingston, Canada.

Cui, A. X., Saslove, J., Crocker, M., & Cuddy, L. L. (2018, May). Short-term behavioural change while listening to music in individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease. Poster presented at the Department of Psychiatry Research Day, Kingston, Canada. Also shown at Symposium on Aging: Dispelling Myths and Building Bridges, Kingston, Canada (2018, April).

Belyea, A., Bai, S., Chan, J., Cui, A. X., Sikka, R., Vanstone, A. D., & Cuddy, L. L. (2017, May). Behavioural responses to music-evoked autobiographical memories in Alzheimer’s disease. Oral presentation at the Department of Psychiatry Research Conference, Kingston, Canada.

Cuddy, L L.  (2017). Long-term memory for music. Springer Handbook of Systematic Musicology, pp.245-252. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Cuddy, L.L, Sikka, R., Silveira, K., Bai, S., & Vanstone, A.D. (2017). Music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) in Alzheimer disease: Evidence for a positivity effect. Cogent Psychology, 4, 1277578.

Vanstone, A. D., Wolf, M., Poon, T., & Cuddy, L. L. (2015). Measuring engagement with music: development of an informant-report questionnaire. Aging & mental health, (ahead-of-print), 1-11. DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2015.1021750

Cuddy, L. L., Sikka, R., & Vanstone, A. (2015). Preservation of musical memory and engagement in healthy aging and Alzheimer's disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337(1), 223-231. DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12617

Vanstone, A. D., Sikka, R., Tangness, L., Sham, R., Garcia, A., & Cuddy, L. L. (2012). Episodic and semantic memory for melodies in Alzheimer’s disease. Music Perception, 29(5), 501- 509.

Cuddy, L. L., Duffin, J. M., Gill, S. S., Brown, C. L., Sikka, R., & Vanstone, A.D. (2012). Memory for melodies and lyrics in Alzheimer’s disease. Music Perception, 29(5), 479-493.

Vanstone, A. D., Cuddy, L. L., Duffin, J. M., &  Alexander, E.  (2009).  Exceptional preservation of memory for tunes and lyrics.  Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1169, 291-294.

Vanstone, A. D., & Cuddy, L. L. (2009).  Musical memory and Alzheimer disease.  Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.