Music in my Head


Special Series: Brain Waves

Hardy Music Circuits

By David Kattenburg

Old songs linger in your head. Certainly pleasurable. Perhaps a godsend. Indelible musical memories may help restore cognition and speech in people suffering from dementia, or after a stroke.

At Misericordia Health Centre, in Winnipeg, Natalie Baird and her colleagues are helping dementia patients remember and speak by getting them to sing.


“Often what happens is when I go in and see people, they’re very disengaged,” says Baird. “After listening to a few songs, they really start to come back to life, I’d say, and come out of their shells.

Ellen Locke and Natalie Baird

Ellen Locke and Natalie Baird

Families appreciate the results, says Ellen Locke, Misericordia’s recreation manager. “We have a good, I would say ten or fifteen-minute reminiscence session after the music, which is huge. It sort of brings that person back to the family.”

Ellen, Natalie and I visited one of Misericordia’s singing residents – 89 year-old Elsie. A cheap pair of headphones and a few old tunes is all Elsie needs to perk up. Listen to her singing along with Patti Page and the Andrew Sisters to two of her favorite songs, “Tennessee Waltz” and “Apple Blossom Time.”

At another hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Roger Dumas is investigating the secrets of music circuits in the brain, and how rugged melodic pathways may help restore others that have been lost. His tool of choice? The Moog synthesizer.

Analog synthesizers shrouded in cables fill Dumas’ office. Gold and platinum disks he’s helped produce – for Janet Jackson, Prince and Switched-On Bach creator Peter Schickele – adorn the walls. These days, Dumas uses Moog synthesizers to tickle brain circuits, and get them to sing back. The payoffs may be huge.

“If we can figure out how to extract a melody from the brain, we could help people who are locked in to communicate,” says Dumas.

Roger Dumas

Roger Dumas

Dumas plays Moog morsels to volunteers wearing sensor-packed helmets that detect magnetic waves sailing across the surface of their brains. Dumas’ Moog-brain interface is more than just a high-tech parlor trick. It reveals the brain’s astonishing ability to process and retain music. To do complex things like predict next notes, or capture melodic contour. Neural circuits like these may help restore speech and cognition circuits that have been downed by stroke or dementia.

“The brain is resilient,” Dumas says. “You can recruit brain areas to compensate for any loss. And musical ability or musical recall may be a way to jog the memory.”

How it is that brains shed memory, while sparing lyrics and music, is one of neuroscience’s great mysteries. Can hardy music circuits jog cognition and speech? Hopes are high. One thing is clear: singing old songs makes elderly people happy, and that’s good for their health.