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  • Rudy Palma

Music Holds the Power to Turn Back the Clock

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

Fran Lebowitz recently observed that perhaps no one gives humanity greater pleasure than chefs and musicians.

I think she may be right. What we continue to learn about the power of music on the brain, and the long-term consequences it can yield, certainly helps make her case.

Last summer, Anderson Cooper profiled Tony Bennett for CBS’s 60 Minutes ahead of his final concerts at Radio City Music Hall. It was his first major television interview following his family’s statement to the public last February that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The gregarious man whose charisma and charm are beloved the world over is subdued and remote as he sits down on the living room couch of his Central Park townhouse to talk about the performances and his new studio album collaboration with Lady Gaga. That recording, Love for Sale, a tribute to the works of Cole Porter, has since been nominated for six Grammy awards. Bennett is still amiable, displaying his trademark enthusiasm, but the words don’t come easily, and when they do, they’re clipped and halting. His wife, Susan Crow, either patiently prompts him or completes his thoughts for him. However, when his musical accompanist Lee Musiker visits and plays the piano, a Tony Bennett concert breaks out. Without hesitation, the legendary crooner feels the groove and begins to sing “Watch What Happens,” a song he has opened many concerts with over the last several decades. There is a grain or two in his voice, of course, but the passion and warmth burn bright as ever. He is totally engaged, and – true to the standards of jazz – sings the song like it’s the first time, to be freshly considered.

What we are witnessing is the product of his life’s work coming to the fore to anchor him. Music is now a gift he has invested in that is paying dividends as he faces something so difficult and complex that scientists and medical experts are still trying to unravel the mystery of it. It all comes down to the power of musical memory – and we know for certain you don’t have to be a professional singer or musician to reap the benefits. All of us with memories of favorite songs can do the same. A report by the Australian television program Catalyst shows particularly stunning results. Through observation of specific sections of the brain lighting up when a test subject listens to music from their youth, neuroscientists are beginning to understand more about how music – the emotion and resonance of it – can bring back remarkable amounts of memory, even for those with severe decline in brain function. Emotional areas in the front of the brain, the temporal lobe and the amygdala are all markedly activated by music. This is far from limited to those suffering from dementia. Even those suffering from Parkinson’s, example, have shown physical improvement and relief from pain as a result of music therapy.

In one instance, we see a woman suffering great memory loss. She is warm and genial, but struggles to remember if the man next to her is her father, her husband, or perhaps someone else; she is embarrassed to learn he is in fact her son. Once she listens to a playlist of songs he helped curate for her, however, her expression and temperament change. She remembers parts of herself that bring her joy, and excitement fills the room. Her son becomes emotional, and so do we. We must appreciate that we cannot throw in the proverbial towel when it comes to those suffering from mental and physical losses, especially when it seems conversation is not possible. Sometimes the simple power of music to evoke memories can facilitate so much of value. Someone may not be able to remember his or her wedding, or even that they were married, looking at you in puzzlement. That’s okay – meet them at their level. Instead, perhaps try playing their wedding song for them. The results might surprise you. What a beautiful thing for all of us to know. Certainly, there is a reason Garth Brooks jokes with his concert crowds about playing new material before saying “Just kiddin’ - we’re gonna play the old stuff!” The crowd roars because his long list of hit singles is tied to so many memories – first dances at weddings, engagements, high school graduations. Music has the power to create space in our minds that, once locked in, never truly deserts us, and encoded with the melodies are memories. A lesson we can learn is that we are not simply indulging or idling when playing a favorite record, buying a ticket to a concert or putting on a favorite radio station – we are sowing seeds for things to fondly recall in the future. One lesson Lady Gaga demonstrates in the 60 Minutes report about Bennett is that, when conversing with someone struggling with any form of dementia, keep it brief and direct. Remember to stick to their previous experiences when at all possible. However, if the task proves a little more challenging, remember to try music. It has a good chance of being what successfully flips the switch and makes precious communication possible. Certainly, one cannot escape the pathos of seeing Bennett quite literally sing through his Alzheimer’s, moving us once again with his enduring talent. But in it, there is a beautiful lesson for all of us.

Isn’t it befitting of a living legend to give us one final gift?

References: 60 Minutes [CBS]. (2021, October 4). Despite his Alzheimer’s, Tony Bennett prepares to perform with Lady Gaga [Video]. YouTube. v=yNrvXw9juNs

Catalyst. [ABC Australia]. (2016, June 7) Power of Music on the Brain | Dementia & Parkinson’s. [Video]. YouTube.

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