Music has the power to evoke a lot of change. I see it every day. It’s a universal language that supersedes all others.

Everyone can relate to that feeling when a familiar song from your childhood starts playing. That stirring sense of nostalgia. Or it could be as simple as a trumpet playing a sequence of notes or even the chirp of a particular species of bird. A single sound, a pattern, a rhythm or beat. Just the sound of it can transport you straight to another time and place.

And because generally everyone grows up with music – not necessarily the same type of music – but everyone has their own memories associated with different songs, by using music in an active way with people who are at the other end of the spectrum of life there is this incredible power to enhance outcomes at so many levels.

One story I’ll never forget was this beautiful woman who had Alzheimer’s disease, and when I met her, she was still quite high functioning.

She was a dancer in her younger years and she knew all the words to all of the different songs we’d sing. So much so, that she’d often help me lead our music therapy sessions at this facility – just by default, because she was that kind of personality. Very graceful.

But one year, she declined quite quickly, to the point where she lost the ability to speak and engage.

At that point, she’d become quite low functioning. She hadn’t spoken for about six weeks, she was quite unwell and not able to come out of her room. But the nurses decided to bring her out into the group session one day.

At the end I went over and sat with her and started singing a song to her.

One of our techniques – and one that anyone can use at home – is using songs that are familiar to their age group,  that they know well. As I sang, I left out a couple of words in an attempt to get her to sing with me, and she was able to fill those bits in. The nurses were shocked.

For the next 20 minutes we sat there and sang together. She even sang whole songs with me. She remembered all of the words and all of the melodies.

At the end, she thanked me. She was able to actually verbalise and express that she’d had a lovely time. Then I turned around to find the nurses tearing up, because she hadn’t said a single word in six weeks.

Then I turned around to find the nurses tearing up, because she hadn’t said a single word in six weeks.

In ways like this, music can help with communication – expressive language in particular.

Memory loss is a symptom of dementia and also generally increases as we age, and through memory loss we can lose our ability to communicate. But by singing songs and using singing techniques to articulate sounds, and being able to have that framework with music, we can reintroduce speech and emotionally and psychologically work to re-build.

From a scientific point of view, it’s been shown that music is processed all over the brain. And this is why it transcends barriers that just words can’t. Even if one part of the brain is affected by dementia, Alzheimer’s or any other condition, music is processed in other parts of the brain too. So it can still have that impact.

Rhythm is processed in a different part to the words and lyrics, the melody, and the structure.

That’s why music works so well to access those musical memories and stimulate certain parts of the brain. And by offering that stimulation, it can enhance other functions as well.

I’ve seen people with dementia successfully learn new songs and even learn new songs in different languages.

But then there are also really lovely other moments that aren’t quite as poignant, but just as important. Like when someone who might be self-isolating or depressed comes and joins the group for half an hour and actually speaks to the person next to them, or someone plays a new instrument that they’ve never played before, or someone remembers a song from one week to the next.

This is backed up by the research, which points to music therapy as helpful in decreasing social isolation, increasing memory recall, and increasing or decreasing different behaviours such as confusion. And particularly so with dementia.

There’s also lots of evidence out there to show that singing in a group and actually making the music together can really positively impact wellbeing and quality of life, as well as decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Then there’s the obvious benefit of receptive listening, like simply playing background music to create a calming atmosphere.

There are physical benefits too.

Another story that stays with me is of a lady who’d had a stroke and was left paralysed on one side – not completely, she still had some capacity to move her arm, but I think she felt quite embarrassed by her physical limitations.

So, in private one-on-one sessions, we started using a glockenspiel – which is like a mini xylophone – and after a little while, I encouraged her to use the side of her body that was impaired.

For her, just using a really simple instrument and playing songs that she was familiar with, she was comfortable enough to try. And she actually regained some strength in her arm. She was able to use it a little bit more increasingly over time, and it meant she regained some of her confidence to then attempt to try some proper rehab therapy exercises as well.

Through using music, she was able to get some of her function back in her arm. That’s a big achievement.

The music making process can help increase motor function and fine motor control, like using fingers. Often in music therapy and our community music programs we’ll be using instruments such as drums, percussion instruments, pianos, guitars, and bells to play music with people we’re doing therapy with.

There’s even some evidence out there to demonstrate that active music making can reduce the need for pain medication. So it has physiological benefits as well, and these effects can be maintained over quite a few hours, or days.

Physically, psychologically and emotionally – and some might say spiritually too – the power of music can’t be denied.

Physically, psychologically and emotionally – and some might say spiritually too – the power of music can’t be denied.

The best part is that it’s accessible for everyone. And while it’s beautiful as a personal experience it can be just as meaningful shared – intimately between two people, in a group or at a mass level.

All over Australia there are lots of different community music programs, like choirs, and music therapy programs available privately and in aged care facilities offering one-on-one sessions with set treatment outcomes as well as less directive, play-based group sessions.

I always remind people that they can use music at home and with their own loved ones too. Singing to your loved ones is really powerful, easy and effective. If you’re a musician or you’ve got grandkids who are musicians, you could also encourage them to bring along their instruments. Play the piano, tap away on a drum or hum along to a song with your loved ones.

There’s no right or wrong, it’s just a really meaningful way to connect. What’s matters most is sharing that experience with them – and making eye contact is a really powerful, simple thing to do. It doesn’t matter if you can’t sing in tune. And you can always improvise, which is powerful because it throws the rulebook out the window and levels the playing field.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to harness music is to find the music your mum, dad or partner really likes or are familiar with – that part’s important – and play it for and with them. Generally you’ll find they’ll engage with it – and that doesn’t have to mean singing along. They might be making intentional eye contact with you, or tapping their foot or fingers in time with the music.

Maybe you’ll just see a sparkle in their eyes, and know it resonates. Never underestimate the impact it can have.