Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory is a wonderful documentary about the power of music to re-awaken the souls and spirits – as well as the cognitive functioning – of people with dementia who all too easily become lost souls, invisible and forgotten. This newsletter is not exactly about music and not exactly about dementia. It’s more about the power of music to help people recover memories, words, meaning, movement, and voice – immediately and enduringly.

Social worker Dan Cohen began bringing individualized playlists on i-pods to people in nursing homes in 2008. Michael Rossato-Bennett filmed him for one day, and was inspired enough to continue filming for three years, creating anaward-winning documentary you can easily download from Netflix. The original4-minute YouTube went viral, generating commitments from hundreds of volunteers and contributions to help bring individualized playlists to people in 650 nursing homes to date. [See more]

The documentary includes interviews with neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain who explains how music is encoded in parts of the brain separate from the brain’s language centers. Even years after people have lost the ability (and with depression, the interest) to put sentences together, withdrawing into a wordless, disconnected world, the instant they hear music relevant to their lives, music they knew from important moments or eras in their lives, they perk up, look people in the eye, begin to move their bodies in rhythm to the music, begin to sing songs they knew as children or teenagers or young lovers. Then, astonishingly, they begin to talk again, and walk again, their faces radiant with aliveness and joy in less than a minute.

The documentary also includes interviews with gerontologist Dr. William Thomas who explains that, with the passage of social security and Medicaid legislation, poor elderly people became patients in a medical-model institution called nursing homes. And he speaks to the resistance of the medical profession to consider music “medicine.” “Physicians can easily prescribe $1000/month anti-depressants, but cannot order a $40 personal music system. It’s not on the list of conventional medical interventions. Ironically, music quickens the heart and soul of a patient. Pills can’t touch that.”

With the aging of American baby-boomers, questions of treatment of our parents, ourselves, become very salient social, political, and financial issues. Alive Inside offers a realistic hope of human beings staying alive, engaged, joyful as they age into a socially connected, contributory elderhood.


Scientists are learning more all the time about memory and preserving/recovering memory as we age. Learning to play a musical instrument is recommended by brain fitness experts like Michael Gelb in Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age. Requiring the brain to do something that integrates various parts of the brain, like playing an instrument, forces it to grow new brain cells and circuits.More circuits build a redundancy into the brain as we mature; the brain can work around memory loss as other circuits atrophy or are damaged by progressive neurogenerative disease, delaying the onset and reducing the impact of conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

What we learn in Alive Inside, with great astonishment, is that people deep into dementia, withdrawn and isolated for years, not engaging with other people, not initiating conversations, not recalling any events of their lives or recognizing children who come to visit, can listen to less than one minute of music emotionally relevant to them, and perk up, sit up, move in rhythm to the music, begin talking a mile a minute about events, people dates, relationships, recovering memories, identities, a sense of self.

Oliver Sachs explains, “Music is inseparable fromemotions. It’s not just a physical stimulus. It’s the back door to the mind. Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain – auditory, visual, emotional, physical coordination – than any other stimulus. If it works at all, it pulls together many emotions and memories from many parts of a person’s life. People re-acquire their identity; the re-connect with themselves.”

The documentary features many individuals: Henry who “wakes up” to gospel music and radiates love. Denise who wakes up to Schubert’s Ave Maria and gives up her walker to dance to salsa. Mary Lou who recovers a sense of flow in her life with the Beach Boys. [See Stories to Learn From below.] Shirley, 94, who could remember nothing from her past until she listened to Louis Armstrong and began remembering dances, jobs, children. Tailoring the playlist to emotional events relevant to each individual is key; family members and photographs can help target people’s favorite songs that set the waking up in motion.

Dr. Sachs explains, “This can happen because the parts of the brain involved in remembering and responding to music are not affected too much by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. It’s the last part of the brain to be touched by Alzheimer’s.”

Dr. Connie Tomaino of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function adds, “Music is a gateway to reach somebody who is otherwise unreachable.” And Dr. Peter Davies, discoverer of the science behind Aricept, the drug most commonly used to treat Alzheimer’s, adds, “I’ve spent 38 years working on Alzheimer’s and I haven’t done anything for patients as effective as music therapy is. I haven’t seen anything as positive as that.”

Dan Cohen wants to see i-pods delivered to every one of the 16,000 nursing homes in America and individual playlists created for the 1.6 million people currently living in them. Waking up to the spontaneity of the music helps people break out of the hospital regimen; shuffling through their playlist returns a sense of choice and control. As the filmmaker says Rossato-Bennett says, “Music awakens in us our most profound sense of safety – the safety of being in connection with each other and with ourselves.” A grand vision for a powerful impact at the lowest possible financial cost – and timely.

5 million American currently suffer from dementia and the withdrawal and social isolation that condition can bring about. That number is expected to double to 10 million people in the next 10 years. Even with 16,000 nursing homes in America, there won’t be enough facilities, gerontologists, and staff to care for that many people who need 24/7 care. The 650 nursing homes who now participate in Music and Memory is an acknowledged drop in the bucket, but is a movement toward healing and awakening into aliveness and wholeness that is going wholeheartedly in the right direction. Just in time, with lots of love.


Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.
– Robert G. Ingersoll

Music is as quintessentially human as language is. It’s hard-wired into our brain.
– Oliver Sachs, M.D.

Music is the shorthand of emotion.
– Leo Tolstoy

Music is the medicine of the mind.
– John A. Logan

Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.
– Leigh Hung

I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights, and you have yours. But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, and love belong to all of us, in all times and in all places. Music is the means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality.
– H.A. Overstreet

The discovery of song and the creation of musical instruments both owed their origin to a human impulse which lies much deeper than conscious intention; the need for rhythm in life….The need is a deep one, transcending thought, and disregarded at our peril.
– Richard Baker

Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?
– Michael Torke

Without music, life would be an error.
– Friedrich Nietzsche


Many people suffering from Alzheimer’s are cared for by family members. Dan Cohen brought an i-pod to Mary Lou and her husband Doug in New York City. Mary Lou could still speak, walk, and love her grandson, but she couldn’t remember the word for spoon, remember which button to push to go down in the elevator, nor put puzzle pieces in place that her 3 year old grandson could do easily. When she first heard “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys, she began dancing and pulled the camera crew in to dance with her. She said she felt flowing in her life again; nothing had ever brought her more joy.

Someone posted to the blog generated by the original YouTube video, “I placed the headphones on my grandmother’s head. When she listened to the music, she looked up and SAW me. I’ll carry that memory forever.”


1. Watch the film Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. A little more than one hour. Easy to stream on Netflix.

2. Visit www.musicandmemory.org. “Do this one small kindness to bring love into a soul who has been forgotten.”

3. Make your own play list and listen to music. Many of us do, exercising at the gym, hiking on a trail, driving a long stretch on the freeway. Stimulate your brain, improve your memory and cognitive functioning, celebrate your life.


www.musicandmemory.org Learn. Understand. Care. Contribute. Volunteer.

Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age. by Michael J. Gelb and Kelly Howell

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sachs, M.D.

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

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