Mood Altering Music

“If you want to calm someone down, first play music that matches his agitated mood.” I was taught that concept decades ago by a music therapist, but when I said it recently in a workshop on how the creative arts enhance dementia care, I was doubted.

Still, it’s not that hard to understand.  When you are upset about something, what is the effect when the person you are complaining to says, “Now, now, calm down. Just relax”? Don’t we want to punch her in the nose?

When we are upset, the first thing we are looking for is someone to affirm those feelings: “I can see how upset you are by this. I am so sorry.” Notice that we don’t have to take the blame; we simply have to acknowledge that the person is upset and we are sorry that is true. Then we want to hear that things will get better. “Let’s see what we can do to make things right.”

21973421[1]Music is simply another way of acknowledging restless, agitated feelings – whether they are yours or those of someone you care for. Cary Smith Henderson in Partial View, An Alzheimer’s Journal, said that he enjoyed listening to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.  “. . .It’s a little bit loud, but sometimes actually, I feel that way. I want to shout. I want to raise some hell.” Loud, energetic music is good for exercising to, cleaning house to, and letting out anxious feelings.

But then, said my music therapist, it’s important to help the person change to a calmer mood – to make things right again. So next you move to a cheerful, upbeat song or two – “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” or “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” That sort of song creates a happier rhythm for cleaning or exercising or singing along to.

Often that is enough – anxiety moves to harmony. But if you want to truly calm someone (including yourself) down, perhaps to set a quiet tone for a meal or relaxing before bed, slow the pace of the music further and bring in nostalgia. Try hymns or spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” or the Roy Rogers theme song written by Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.” Music can often do what words can’t.

Music should never be played constantly or it will create anxiety, but most people enjoy 15 or 30 minutes of music here and there. Recent experiments have also shown improved cognitive engagement when individuals are given a chance to listen to their music preferences on iPods. Donate yours to

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