The Science of Symphony

How music can restore dementia patients’ rhythm of life


Cover photo presents members of The 5th Dementia; back row from left to right: Gene Sterling, Sam Mayo, Spencer Lemann, Walker Landgraf, Jacob Ehrlich; sitting: Carol and Irwin Rosenstein

The experience of playing music is commonly equated to a “fully body workout for the brain,” engaging multiple areas of the brain at once, especially the motor, visual and auditory sections.[1]  In order for these varied regions of the brain to communicate, brain signals rapidly fire in complex, interrelated pathways between the left hemisphere, which is responsible for a musician’s analytical processes, and the right hemisphere, which facilitates the creative functions of both playing and listening to music.[2] Research shows physical differences between the brains of musicians and those without musical experience.

Recently, attention has turned to the potentially therapeutic benefits of music when it comes to patients suffering from neurodegeneration and the subsequent loss of memory and other cognitive functions. For example, a 1989 study of an 82-year-old musician with Alzheimer’s disease proposes that “the skill of playing previously learned piano compositions from memory represents a special kind of procedural memory and is stored at least in part in the neostriatum, an area of the brain spared until the latest stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.”[3]

While this phenomenon is grounded in neurological science, to some such as Carol Rosenstein, it seems more like magic. Carol is the co-founder of Music Mends Minds, Inc., an intergenerational organization that brings together early- to mid-continuum dementia patients with music students from neighboring schools to form bands such as the Los Angeles-based “The 5th Dementia.” The therapy bands are comprised of members such as Carol’s husband, Irwin Rosenstein, a pianist and saxophonist in the band who has had Parkinson’s for ten years and early-onset dementia for about three to four, and Sam Mayo on the harmonica who is an eighty-three-year-old retired history professor now suffering from aphasia—a speech and language disorder preventing his ability to speak.[4]

Carol and Irwin Rosenstein, founders and directors of Music Mends Minds, Inc.

Recalling songs from the genre of their generation, translating these pristine memories, untouched by disease, into motor control of their instruments, and synchronizing with the other members of their band is only the very beginning of the magical, musical experience of The 5th Dementia. While many patients, including these musicians, suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions struggle against the incessant deterioration of cognitive and behavioral functions, Carol remarks that her husband and his band are actually “learning new tempos, new songs, [and] new ideas.”[5] For anyone who has cared for a patient like this, the prospect of learning—of actually enhancing the cognitive abilities in these patients that would otherwise be quickly deteriorating—is unbelievable.

Seeing the success and merit of this program after just one year, Carol believes that Music Mends Minds really is a “blueprint for research for tomorrow.”[5] Several new bands around the country have formed, such as one at California State University, Northridge. This band, manned by a music therapist named Julie Berghofer, presents an exciting opportunity for rehearsals to be organized and overlooked by someone trained in both musical performance and patient care. Furthermore, as this innovative group gains more traction, they will continue to look for research opportunities, such as collaboration with a researcher at the greater Los Angeles Veterans Association or with the professor, neurologist and songwriter Mark Tramo at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA.

However, beyond the scientific potential and traditional therapeutic benefits, Music Mends Minds is an organization that demonstrates the important social and emotional power of music therapy. According to Michael Quick, a neuroscientist and professor of biological sciences at USC, “What’s especially heartbreaking about brain diseases is that they can alter people’s core traits… If you have kidney disease, or diabetes, we don’t tend to think of you as a changed person because of it. But when talking about a disease of the brain, it’s something that is affecting, potentially, who that person is.”[6] In the one short year since the founding of Music Mends Minds, Carol has seen how participation in the band, especially the mentoring between the senior patients and the younger students, has restored in these members a sense of self-worth, self-confidence and integrity. This beautiful connection between generations transcends all boundaries imposed by disease, age, or musical genre. Working with the students, and gaining their respect and intrigue, gives the seniors a renewed purpose and relation to their world that is slowly slipping from their minds. At the same time, the students—who may have grandparents, aunts, uncles, or friends coping with similar conditions—embrace the musical genre of the band members and learn how to relate to those struggling against disease.

If The 5th Dementia and its parent organization illustrate one thing, it is that the power of music as medicine resonates at any octave along the scale of age or health. While the early- to mid-continuum patients are still capable of playing high quality music and, as Carol says, “sparkling in a way they have lost” to disease, even patients without musical ability or who are nearing a more severe state of dementia can be reinvigorated by music.[5,7] With this in mind, rehearsals are open to other community members beyond the students and caregivers, and everyone is invited to listen, sing, and even dance along.

Describing the way band member Sam Mayo dances in the aisles while playing his harmonica, Carol reflects, “It’s really a very joyful, sweet experience.”[5] And I could tell from the way she laughed that this musical group was definitely hitting the right notes.

MMM_red scarves_2014
Senior and student members of The 5th Dementia, from left to right: Gene Sterline, Spencer Lemann, Walker Landgraf, Jacob Ehrlich, Sam Mayo, Irwin Rosenstein

The 5th Dementia will be hosting their annual holiday concert on December 19th at Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles at 2pm. Go to and click on the “Webcast” tab to watch it live! For more information on the concert, Music Mends Minds, Inc., The 5th Dementia, or music as medicine and therapy, please check out the resources below.

Photos in article are courtesy of Music Mends Minds, Inc.

Further Reading:


  1. Collins, A. (2014). How playing an instrument benefits your brain. Retrieved November 21, 2015, from
  2. Jun, P. (2011). Music, Rhythm and The Brain. Brain World. Retrieved November 16, 2015, from
  3. Crystal, H. A., Grober, E., & Masur, D. (1989). Preservation of musical memory in Alzheimer’s disease. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 52(12): 1415-1416. Retrieved November 16, 2015, from
  4. Fogarty, C. (n.d.). Music as Medicine for the Mind. CurePSP: Unlocking the Secrets of Brain Disease. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from
  5. Rosenstien, C., DC, MA, DACBN. (2015, November 11). Music Mends Minds and The Fifth Dementia [Personal interview].
  6. Gammon, K. (2015). Data on the Brain: The Power of Imaging. USC Trojan Family, 32-37. Retrieved November 17, 2015, from
  7. Rossato-Bennett, M. (2014). Alive Inside. Documentary.

Author: Amanda Urke