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Study Looks at Cognitive Benefits of Live Music for Elderly Dementia Patients On South Coast

By DEBRA GREENE

Research shows that music can have a healing power, and that’s why it is used as a form of therapy. A study is being conducted on the South Coast that looks at the cognitive impacts of live music performances on elderly dementia patients.

A French horn player and a pianist perform Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 1 in front of about a dozen elderly residents at this retirement home in Santa Barbara called Valle Verde.

“I’ve been happy listening to the live music. It’s wonderful,” said Dorothy, who has dementia.

She says the music transports her to a better place.

“To beautiful paintings and beautiful scenery and beautiful feelings,” she said.

Dorothy and the others are part of a study called “Classical Connections” commissioned by the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra that looks at the therapeutic benefits of classical music performed live versus recordings.

Lori Sunshine, a music therapist and the lead researcher in this study, talks to the participants and records how they feel before the live performance and then how they feel after. And she compares their reactions to recorded classical music.

“We believe in the study that it’s live music. The live interaction as well as the music. It’s the person being there. The entire experience that makes live music much more powerful than recorded,” she said.

Once the performance is over, Dorothy still has trouble recalling her age.

“If I can remember, I think it’s 86,” she said.

But what she does remember is her favorite song.

"Clair de Lune," she said.

And the pianist plays Clair de Lune.

It’s not clear if the live music actually triggered her memory. But, Sunshine says it can.

“It brings upon all four quadrants of the brain to be activated. So all the neurons are being stimulated. The brain is enlivened and more activated. So, you’re more inclined to hear a person who can’t remember something, remember something,” she said.

She says it can also improve mobility, human connection and mood.

Ninety-year-old Barbara says listening to the live music fills her with positive emotions.

“Makes me feel happy. Joy. Peace. Calm. It cheers me up,” she said.

Stephanie Stetson, who’s playing her French horn, says music is powerful.

“Reaching the inside of people. Speaking to them spiritually and emotionally. Touching them. It’s a beautiful thing to see joy on people’s faces,” she said.

And that’s why the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra decided to conduct this study, says Tim Dougherty of SBCO.

“We see value in bringing classical music to everyone regardless of setting. And if it can be shown to have value beyond strictly artistic, creative endeavor, we want to be part of that conversation,” he said.

Researchers say it’s evident from this study that live music provides these dementia patients with far more than just entertainment. It gives them therapeutic benefits that improve their quality of life.