LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
It's a common experience, especially this time of year. We hear a song, and our thoughts travel back in time - where we were, who we were with, how we felt. Now researchers have quantified just how quickly our brains recognize a familiar tune. And as NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, the findings may reinforce using music therapy to help people with dementia.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The connection between music and memory was a life-changing experience for Nancy Gustafson, a retired opera singer who's now an advocate for using music therapy to help patients with dementia. Her mother suffered dementia for a number of years when the family decided she needed 24/7 care and moved her into a memory care unit at an assisted living facility. Gustafson lives out of state. And when she visited her mom for the first time, she was devastated.
NANCY GUSTAFSON: She was sitting in her wheelchair with her head down. She was sitting - I'll never forget - at a breakfast table looking so sad and looking so lost and so confused.
NEIGHMOND: She answered yes and no to questions. But Gustafson thinks she didn't really understand the question and answered just to be polite. Her mother, she says, couldn't put two words together and did not recognize her. Gustafson visited every month. And as an opera singer, she had some ideas about how she might make a connection. So when she visited her in October, she wheeled her mom next to the piano in the living room of the care facility and started to play and sing.
GUSTAFSON: I start playing the piano with her. It might have been "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" or "Deck The Halls" or "Angels We Have Heard On High." And I start playing, singing along with her. And immediately, she starts singing with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DECK THE HALLS")
GUSTAFSON: (Singing) Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
And I caught her out of the corner of my eye. And I just wanted to jump up and run out of the memory care unit to call my sister immediately saying, Mom is singing with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DECK THE HALLS")
GUSTAFSON: (Singing) ...Our gay apparel. Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
So I kept playing songs. And she kept singing along. And after 15 minutes, I turned. And I looked at her. And her first words were, you know, that's not very good. Well, I laughed so hard because that's exactly what my mother would have said to me with no Alzheimer's. She would have said that 30 years ago, 40 years before that.
NEIGHMOND: Now, Gustafson's a professional singer but admits her piano playing just isn't that great. She promised her mom to try harder and not hit the wrong chords.
GUSTAFSON: As we finished, I turned and looked at her. And she said, that's much better. And I was so excited. I looked at my mom, and I said, Mom, you know, we're really getting good. If we practiced enough - you know, this is October. We've got two months. If we practice enough before Christmastime, we could go into the shopping center, put out a cup and earn some money. And she laughed and said, the Gustafson Family Singers.
NEIGHMOND: And at that moment, she says, her mom's life and hers changed.
GUSTAFSON: Because all of a sudden, not only was she relating to me and was she cracking a joke, but she knew our last name. And she knew that I was related to her.
NEIGHMOND: Researchers say familiar music can be a portal into memory. Nina Kraus is a researcher and neuroscientist at Northwestern University.
NINA KRAUS: There is a very tight inherent connection between the memory systems in our brain and our auditory brain such that just listening to sounds and listening to familiar sounds will evoke memory.
NEIGHMOND: And it's incredibly common, she says, for music to evoke memories that have been lost.
KRAUS: Sound is evolutionarily ancient. And it is deeply, deeply rooted in our nervous system. So the memories that we make, the sound-to-meaning connections that we have and that we've made throughout our lives are always there. And it's a matter of being able to access them.
NEIGHMOND: And new research shows memories of music are deeply embedded in the brain. Maria Chait with University College London Ear Institute.
MARIA CHAIT: We all have these intuitive experiences where we switch stations in the radio, and it seems like we're able to recognize familiar music very quickly.
NEIGHMOND: Chait wanted to know just how quickly. She did a small study. Ten people each picked their favorite song. Participants were between 18 and 35. But the songs spanned decades.
CHAIT: "The Way We Were" by Barbra Streisand, "Detroit Rock City" by Kiss, "You Never Can Tell" by Chuck Berry, "Dead Inside" by The Muse (ph).
NEIGHMOND: Chait found brain responses to familiar songs were much faster and stronger than responses to unfamiliar songs - within just one-tenth to one-third of a second.
CHAIT: Our results confirm that memory for music has a deep hold over us and is maintained in the brain very robustly.
NEIGHMOND: Which may explain, she says, why patients with dementia respond to music. A few weeks after Gustafson and her mom sang Christmas carols together, she visited again. And this time, she and her siblings took their mom to the shopping mall for lunch.
GUSTAFSON: We took her to Fashion Island in front of the koi pond. And she loves the koi pond. And she sat there and stayed connected with us verbally. She would sit in front of the pond, and she said, what a beautiful place. What a beautiful day. I mean, vocabulary came back to her after she sang for an hour and a half.
NEIGHMOND: And when they got back to the memory care unit...
GUSTAFSON: And she took my face in her hands, and she said, thank you for a wonderful day and kissed my forehead.
NEIGHMOND: After that, the family hired a music therapist to visit once a week and a young singer to come sing with her mom for 45 minutes, seven days a week. Gradually, her mother started to communicate again. Music therapy is increasingly common in assisted living facilities - just not common enough, says Kraus. Music, she says, should be a standard of care for dementia. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING")
GUSTAFSON: (Singing) Hark the herald angels sing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.