DOI: 10.1002/alz.077537 ISSN: 1552-5260

Call and response: Ethnomusicological methods to awaken specific memories with targeted songs encoded in neuronal populations of a dementia patient

Jayendran Pillay
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Neurology (clinical)
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Health Policy
  • Epidemiology


This study collaborates with a fellow expert ethnomusicologist Sean Williams to trigger specific contextual memories associated with songs of her mother Julian Williams, born in 1932, and currently struggling with the early stages of dementia. The goal was to ascertain the success rate of a one‐to‐one correspondence type: The use of targeted, known songs of the dementia patient as a means to trigger the patient’s contextual memories.

By adopting a methodology in Ethnomusicology involving the autobiography of one’s music history and their corresponding memories of the patient Julian Williams, I set up the experiment for Sean Williams to conduct. Dividing the study into discrete music time periods (infancy, childhood, teenager, young adult, older adult), I asked Sean Williams to choose specific songs with specific memories to the patient to be sung. The memory responses of the patient on video were then recorded.

Each of those songs had deep levels of recognition by the Alzheimer’s patient, as evidenced in her singing with some memories (lyrics and contextual environment) stronger than than others. The fact that there is some autobiographical recall, despite a weakened sense of time and space after the onset of Alzheimer’s, suggests there may be use for this technique in dementia care. Of note, is the fun‐filled disposition of the participants during the recording of the singing. That speaks to a higher quality of life one could expect by using music as a memory‐recall and time‐ travel companion.

This single case study needs to be broadened into a larger‐scale experiment involving many participants from different cultures to ascertain the use of individualized targeted songs to awaken specific memories of the dementia patients. In the area of dementia care, this approach also makes it possible for families to participate actively since the songs will probably be known to them as well.

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