For several decades now, the Music School at Bahia Adventist College in northern Brazil has been offering music education for students. In the past couple of years, however, leaders have devised ways of expanding the school’s influence in its surrounding community as well. Activities are focused on inclusion to reinforce the therapeutic, social, and spiritual role that music can fulfill.
One of the projects is geared toward helping Nazaré Portella, a 79-nine-year-old woman who lives close to the school campus and is suffering from Alzheimer's. The Music School initiative was launched more than a year ago by music professor Juliana Pinheiro Sanches. Its goal is to use music as an aid in the treatment of neurological diseases. The ultimate goal is to share the initiative with many other people.
“She is unbelievable,” Pinheiro Sanches said. “When I first met her, I found out that she loved singing and was a music lover. I suggested that the family start music therapy as a way of delaying the effects of the disease and contributing to a better quality of life.”
Portella was diagnosed in 2017, and since then her family has been looking for ways to help her. As a young woman, she often sang in church and a choir. Recently, she took part in a video recorded to honor grandparents on their special day.
Music as Treatment
Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that brings cognitive and short-term memory decay. It also results in various behavioral changes that generally get worse over time.
“I know that music therapy does not cure the disease,” Pinheiro Sanches said, “but through music, the patient responds to stimuli better, smiles, speaks, becomes more social, and improves posture, motor coordination, mood, and self-esteem.”
According to neurologist Felipe Oliveira, Alzheimer’s triggers a neuron degenerative process that usually cannot be halted. But, he said, patients with Alzheimer’s can show improvements when treated with music therapy.
“Areas of language, emotions, and memories are activated by music,” Oliveira explained. “A person suffering Alzheimer’s tends to lose some skills, such as language. Studies show that music therapy activates certain brain regions that promote the reduction or degeneration of certain areas, in addition to improving some symptoms,” he added.
The music therapy class follows a similar pattern: it follows a repertoire of eight new songs composed with the patient. It starts with the opening song titled, “Good Morning!” It follows with songs based on Bible verses such as Psalm 46 and 1 Chronicles 7:14, and adds other pieces related to bathing, hugging, and saying goodbye.
Portella’s daughter Tatiane said she witnessed improvements as soon as her mom began to attend music therapy classes. Somehow her mother became able to remember the lyrics, rhythms, and melody of the songs.
“I saw right away that she could remember parts of the song,” Tatiane said. “After five days, I could still hear her humming. I realized that the responses to the daily routine were more positive after school. She became more willing to accomplish everyday tasks, such as bathing and eating.”
According to Oliveira, the changes are the result of improvements in three main areas of the brain. One of them is the amygdala, responsible for feelings like fear and pleasure. Music activates its outer area, according to Oliveira. “Depending on the melody we hear, we feel sad or happy, helping us to remember some specific experiences,” he added.
For Tatiane, her mother’s improvement took place gradually. Tatiane noticed an increase in vocabulary and more connected speech. “I can see that the dynamics of the class have an effect right away and also later. After music therapy, she is more willing to take over decisions such as choosing what clothes to wear. Songs also help her to coordinate, for instance, between right and left. She can even remember songs she used to sing in the past,” Tatiane shared.
Oliveira explained that these responses are based on the hippocampus, a brain area essential for memory. The hippocampus is usually the area most affected by Alzheimer’s. It also plays an important role in emotions. For example, when listening to sad music, inhibition of this area may occur.
“Music, in general, plays a role in stimulating our behavior. It can be passive — listening to music associated with emotions and behavioral changes — or active — dancing or singing. These actions also activate other brain regions simultaneously or sequentially.”
The Music School at Bahia Adventist College also offers courses in musical instruments, singing techniques, music for children, orchestra practice, and choirs. For years, the school has contributed to music leaders’ training for Adventist congregations across Brazil and beyond.