As a professional musician and professor of music, I certainly can attest to the value of music at any age. But there is so much about how our brains connect with musical language that we still do not understand. What I do know (and I’ve seen it directly in action) is that music reaches a primal zone deep within our brain that connects to our intellect at an absolutely fundamental level.
My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease many years ago. At the time of this incident, he was living in what would now be called an “assisted living” facility designed for people with this disease. As he was entering a phase of complete disorientation and even a lack of speech, my mother brought him home for what would be his last Thanksgiving with us.
When he saw me, he thought I was my uncle. Although he was somewhat disoriented, he did know he was with family. After a while, I decided to play some piano for him. As I started playing some old jazz standards, he started to hum along. Humming became singing, and all of a sudden he became completely cogent. For the rest of the evening, he was alert and aware. It turned out to be a very nice evening.
Unfortunately, he continued to decline, and never really returned to the kind of awareness we saw that night. But that episode showed me something that I had always known – music truly touches the soul in ways we value greatly but barely understand.