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Timeline: Music And Memory: The Quickening Art

U.S. Public Domain
This personification of "Memory" by sculptor Olin Veli Warner adorns the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant called music “The Quickening Art.” Oliver Sacks uses this quote often when explaining how music can jump-start the human brain. Music employs so many different parts of the mind at once. It can trigger responses that may have seemed dormant or even lost forever. Sometimes, the effect of music on the mind can even appear miraculous. I’ve seen it, firsthand.


In 2012, filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett created Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music to unlock the human mind. The film follows social worker, Dan Cohen, who put together individualized iPods for residents at an East Coast nursing home. The most memorable moment in the film for me features a dementia patient, an elderly gentleman named Henry. The segment begins with Henry slumped over in a wheelchair, almost completely unresponsive. The nurse then places headphones over his ears and presses play on his iPod. The response is dynamic, to say the least. Henry’s head rises, his eyes open wide and he begins to sing. His body starts to move, in short, he wakes up. Even after the headphones are taken away, Henry is awake, alert and begins to have a beautiful conversation about what music means to him. The first time I saw this, I have to admit, I cried as Henry sang Cab Calloway’s version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

We’ve talked a lot about how the brain processes music and how music touches so many different parts of our mind. We’ve explored the physical, emotional and social benefits of music. As one listener to Timeline wrote in, it can all sound quite academic, until you see the footage of Henry singing or you witness someone you love coming back to the “now” through the power of music.

My grandmother, Jessie, was my first piano teacher. She was a wonderful organist and pianist, having played and instructed on those instruments all of her life. During her last year, she lost her sight and with it an awareness of the present. The last time I saw her was at a nursing home. She wasn’t really there with me, she was talking about piloting a new form of experimental aircraft and I wasn’t her grandson at that moment. She didn’t remember me. However, there was a keyboard in her room. The nurses knew that she loved to play. They guided her to the keys and she began to play her favorite gospel song “Mansion Over the Hilltop” blind. We sang and for a moment she remembered.

Here’s where I tell you how important it is that we share in music, at every age, very season of life. Here’s where I make a case for art’s existence and why it must be preserved and supported. But, these are just words, words that are easily forgotten or ignored. However, the day will come when music will be there for you or someone you love. A song or a melody from the past will rise like a balm over a wound, like a hand in the darkness leading back to the light. In that moment of quickening, these words won’t matter; just the music. Listen and remember.

Learn more about Alzheimer's disease and music and how music therapy can benefit Alzheimer's patients. Share your stories and comment below. We'd love to hear from you.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

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