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New neuroscience research shows the effectiveness of music therapy in caring for those with Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that can severely limit a person’s movement. However, neuroscience research continues to prove that music therapy can be extremely effective in addressing the physical limitations and struggles that result from the disease as well as the speech and communication deficits that can progress.

In fact, some studies have shown that certain types of music can have a profoundly positive effect in stimulating the production of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters (chemicals produced by brain cells) that tend to be damaged by the symptoms of Parkinson’s 1.

The Power of Music in Parkinson’s Care

Music has long been thought to not only promote wellness and healing, but also to help manage stress. It seems to be especially beneficial in caring for those with Parkinson’s and other types of dementias.

The signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s causes problems with motor coordination, especially in initiating movement, consecutive movement, or slowness of movement. Over time, the brain rhythm’s ability to circuit control movement gets derailed by the disease. Research suggests that music-based movement (MbM) therapy can help restore the normal rhythm and improve gait-related activities like the brain’s ability to respond to movement. Music therapy helps patients focus on the enjoyment of moving to music instead of their current mobility limitations.

Studies have shown that playing and listening to music, as well as singing and dancing to music, can modify emotions, movements, communication, and cognitive factors, by activating certain sectors of the brain that control these behaviors 2.

Rhythm in particular plays a crucial role in rehabilitation, enhancing connections between the motor and auditory systems leading to beneficial effects, such as improving the speed and length of a step, as well as motor timing abilities 3. Not only does the brain change when listening to or playing music, but the emotional response to hearing music can actually increase the release of dopamine, which appears to be lacking in those suffering from Parkinson’s.

The Various Benefits of Music Therapy

In addition to enhancing motor skills and coordination, music therapy can also help mitigate the psychological symptoms of Parkinson’s and other dementias, such as anxiety and moodiness, as well as sleep disorders.

Individuals with dementia often have difficulty articulating their words; speech can become slurred and unclear. This may be caused by breathing issues and/or the motor aspects of speech. This is where the value of singing therapy plays a beneficial role. Encouraging loved ones to “sing” and sustain single syllables promotes greater breath support. And if they also tap their hand while they speak, it can aid in the coordination and clarity of their speech.

Sometimes an individual with Parkinson’s has too much movement and can’t stop the tremors or involuntary movements referred to as dyskinesia. The urge to move may over-rule the need to relax and may even disrupt sleep. In these instances, slow rhythmic music can slow down overactive body rhythms and induce relaxation and sleep.

Other aspects of the disease can affect a patient’s mood, causing depression, anxiety and even social isolation. Participating in music therapy groups, such as therapeutic drumming groups, dance and choral groups, can provide an outlet for self-expression and a closer connection to others.

Music Therapy Guidelines for Parkinson’s Caregivers

While there are many support groups and programs for music therapy, caregivers can also develop their own music therapy program.

Family caregivers should be urged to incorporate music into a daily routine, especially singing which has multiple benefits in Parkinson’s care. Start by exploring your loved one’s favorite music and create a music library of songs and personalized playlists that encourage movement and singing. An IPOD or portable CD player are all you’ll need to play the music while you’re at home or out and about.

Schedule a “sing along” session at the same time every day. Play a favorite tune and sing along together. Tranquil music can also be used as a sleep aid, so set up a music library of those favorite melodies as well.

Even if the disease has already caused cognitive change and/or movement challenges, music therapy can help. A video posted on Facebook earlier this year pays tribute to that. While we cannot validate social media content, the video has garnered more than 9 million views. It features a 73-year old man who, a decade after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, was once again able to dance with his wife thanks to the therapeutic power of music. His remarkable improvement was captured by his physical therapist and has been an inspiration to many 4.

Trending Now: Music to Mend the Mind

Music therapy is getting a lot of national and international attention these days. This past Memorial Day, noted soprano Renée Fleming with the support of the National Institutes of Health hosted and participated in the “Sound Health: Music and the Mind” program. This major national event, honored the power of music therapy with a concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. performed by The National Symphony Orchestra alongside renowned neuroscientists, musicians and singers.

More than 60,000 elders have been helped through the power of music and the Music & Memory programs nationwide. The organization is working with patients in long-term care facilities, assisted living communities, hospices, adult day health centers, hospitals and training healthcare professionals in music therapy techniques. They are convinced that music can renew lives and that music can tap into deep memories not lost to dementia, reviving patients so they feel like themselves again 5.

According to Canadian researcher Jessica Grahn, a professor at Western University in London, Ontario, music enables the brain of an individual with Parkinson’s to “bypass the faulty circuitry” caused by the disease. “Many patients struggle with internally-generated movements -- trying to get up and walk across the room, for example-- only to realize that their brain is not receiving the signal. But reflexive movements, such as catching a ball thrown in their direction or dancing to music, seem to remain intact.”

According to members of the 5th Dementia, an unconventional group of musicians who have all been diagnosed with some form of dementia, music can in fact mend the mind. Their twice-weekly jam sessions have brought about a remarkable transformation in each musician. While they may not be able to remember what they had for breakfast or where they need to be that afternoon, the universal language of music enables them to communicate in different manner, express their emotions and connect with others on a deeper level.

The Rhythm, Music & Mind

Everyone has some inherent rhythm (even those who swear they can’t dance!) And for those suffering from Parkinson’s, an active music therapy program with singing and dancing and listening to music, can not only help improve their movements and motor skills, but also their emotional health and well-being.

If you’re interested in learning more about the power of music in dementia care, find a music therapy program in your area by visiting


  3. Thaut MH. Rhythm, Music and the Brain: Scientific Foundations and Clinical Applications. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group; (2005)

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About the Author(s)

An accomplished freelance writer and editor, Cheryl is passionate on how to bolster our resilience in old age and reshape the course of decline. Her compassion and understanding for caregiving stems from acting as a caregiver for her mother, who struggled with dementia, and her father, who suffered from Parkinson’s.

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