The Transforming Power of Melody and Memory

By Steve Toll

I have been a musician for as long as I can remember. At age 9, I started playing the violin; at 13, I taught myself to play guitar and sing popular songs. I studied with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, in 1970, attended Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. In the late 1970s, I moved to New York City to seek opportunities in the music industry and pursue higher education, attending Columbia University. To fund my education, I did studio work at the iconic Electric Lady Studios in the West Village, where I had the pleasure to work with Richie Havens, Phoebe Snow and many other artists.

Music has inspired me in so many ways, helping me to express myself and relate to the world. But until I started working with older adults, I had no idea how powerful a tool music was—one that could have such a positive influence on people’s quality of life, regardless of their age. This realization led me to research and develop a “music philosophy” that sees—and employs—music as an effective therapeutic tool. In 1996, I started Prescription Music, a company that educates and trains caregivers in the dynamic techniques I developed and use to engage residents in senior communities across the country.

Songs from a Life

To be able to connect with another person in a deep way through music has profoundly moved me. Helping someone with dementia remember who they are, motivating them to participate in a social activity, orienting them to their environment, helping them experience joy—this has become a primary mission in my life.

Music resides in the collective memory of a culture, but what makes a song memorable? The basic elements of rhythm and melody, when linked to lyrics, can create a lasting memory, which can be triggered by something we see or smell, an event, a person, a conversation or even just a single word. Certain chord and note progressions have the power to evoke emotions, which may enable us to create a more lasting impression of a song.

The longer I worked with older adults, the more I realized how dynamic it was to uncover the “hidden gems”—the songs of a person’s life. We all have them. They remind us of our wedding day, a first date, a family vacation or some seemingly insignificant memory that holds particular meaning. But my most amazing realization has been to discover that an older person’s musical talent usually remains intact over time, even when they have dementia.

The Transformation of Bud

I met Bud in the Alzheimer’s unit where he lived. Although he participated in music sessions by tapping out rhythms to the songs or by slapping his legs, he rarely spoke or otherwise communicated verbally. Bud intrigued me. I interviewed his wife and other family members and learned that as a young man in the 1930s, he had been a professional drummer in a dance band.

Based on our conversation, Bud’s wife volunteered to bring in his snare drum. As soon as we placed the drum in front of Bud, he smiled broadly and began playing. With more investigation, I discovered that his favorite song was “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” Bud’s energetic response to that song showed he remembered it fondly; long ago, he would watch his wife dance the Charleston as he played that song with his band. It was wondrous to see Bud’s transformation in response to this mingling of melody and memory: Bud’s sense of himself as a musician was restored and his quality of life greatly enhanced.

Since working with Bud, I continue to interview people to learn about their lives and the music they remember. As we age, the songs of our lives become extremely important tools for communication and experiencing joy. I encourage members of the ASA community to think about the music you all love, and to interview your loved ones or clients to learn about their preferences: this knowledge can be a key conduit to maintaining dignity and personhood for as long as possible.

Steve Toll is director of Music and Special Programs for ComForCare Health Care Holdings, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.