Music & Memory

Course connects Trinity students, Hartford senior citizens

By Andrew J. Concatelli

“There is something magical about music,” says Trinity College student Skye Gasataya ’21. “It can take you to a different place or transport you back to a time that may have been long forgotten.”

Music and Memory class
Brownell Professor of Philosophy Dan Lloyd addresses students in “The Music of Thought.”

Gasataya has witnessed music’s power firsthand. She took part last spring in a Music & Memory project in which students in Brownell Professor of Philosophy Dan Lloyd’s “The Music of Thought” course worked with senior citizens at Hartford’s Avery Heights senior living community to create personalized iPod playlists of their favorite songs.

Music & Memory, created by social worker Dan Cohen, is a New York-based nonprofit that works to bring personalized music into the lives of the elderly or others in long-term care. The organization’s efforts were showcased in Alive Inside, a 2014 documentary that chronicled Cohen’s efforts to demonstrate music’s ability to help ease the suffering and isolation associated with memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Experts say that music from one’s adolescence is a part of long-term memory that often can remain intact even as more recent memories fade. “Everyone has etched memories from their formative years, and music is a part of them,” Lloyd says. Music can help reconnect seniors and others experiencing memory loss with distant memories and emotions. “You can connect with music anytime; it’s an enhancement to your life.”

avery heights resident
Jack, an Avery Heights resident, listens to music with his new iPod headphones.

Students working in small groups made several trips during the semester to Avery Heights, located about a mile away from the Summit Street campus. There the 28 students in the class met with 13 residents to talk about and listen to their favorite music, asking questions to determine the residents’ musical tastes and playing samples of songs to gauge interest. From there, they used online applications including Spotify or Pandora to help generate a list of about 100 songs from a similar time period or by comparable artists. Songs purchased from iTunes were loaded onto iPods, which were given to the residents.

Part of the funding for the course comes from Trinity’s Community Learning Initiative, which fosters academic collaborations among Trinity students, staff, faculty, and Hartford organizations to deepen learning and civic engagement. Lloyd sees Music & Memory as an example of a classic community learning project, from which all parties benefit. Students encounter music and an era of life that are very different from their own and may have their assumptions challenged. “Whatever their initial thoughts are of what it means to be old are not nearly as complete or as intricate as the reality,” Lloyd says.

Work on the Music & Memory project constitutes about a third of the course time in “The Music of Thought,” which also focuses on the psychology of music, philosophy, and the mind. “Music’s really fundamental to our human existence, and it is uniquely human,” Lloyd says. “That attachment of music to emotion, life events, and memory suggests to me that music is both good to study and important to study.”

For one assignment, students listened to the music compiled for a resident, described the world the music evoked, and then wrote about how the person was a reflection of that era. The Avery Heights residents, likewise, enjoyed the interactions and were left with iPods filled with songs—and memories.

student and Avery Heights resident
Andrew Collins ’20 and Jack discuss the 98-year-old’s personalized playlist.

Jack, age 98, sits in a recliner by the window in his room. Piled next to him are stacks of old cassette tapes in scratched and scuffed plastic cases. Jack prefers music from the roaring ’20s—the sounds of his childhood—through the Big Band and Dixieland jazz eras of the 1940s. He likes hearing solos by different musicians; bass players are a particular favorite. Jack tells the students he meets with that he built his music collection in part by going to a radio station owned by a friend and making copies of any songs he wanted. Jack shows the students how to load a cassette tape into a Walkman, and they, in turn, introduce him to an iPod. He quickly declares, “It sounds better than my tapes!”

Andrew Collins ’20 says it was exciting to see Jack’s reaction to the music coming from his new iPod. “He became so immersed in the music that he stopped talking and started bobbing his head and tapping his shoe. He clearly enjoyed what we had given him,” says Collins, a Michael A. Moraski ’72 Scholar. “Throughout the course, we’ve witnessed, as well as read about, countless examples of how music positively impacts the mood, behavior, and thoughts of individuals. It’s very important that these residents have easy access to music, not only to enhance their present existence but also to provide stimulation to their cognitive memory.”

Jodi Levine, M.A., MT-BC, the director of therapeutic recreation, volunteers, religion, and music therapy at Avery Heights, says she sees great benefits to residents enjoying their preferred music during their leisure time. The personalized iPods are stored in a cabinet that staff members access for the residents upon request.

“I totally believe in the power of music,” Levine says. “We started [a Music & Memory] program here years ago as a pilot program on our Alzheimer’s unit. The music helps the residents feel comforted, secure, and at ease and provides a sense of well-being because they’re listening to songs that we’ve figured out they like. Once I saw Alive Inside, we applied for and were awarded a Kaman Foundation grant to get iPods for every resident on the campus and to buy songs from iTunes.

“The residents beam when the students come over,” Levine adds. “Intergenerational programs are so wonderful because they bring the outside community in.”

Linda listening to music
Avery Heights resident Linda moves to her music.

Linda is the youngest resident in the intermediate care unit, and her musical tastes include upbeat hits from the 1970s and 1980s, especially songs by the Jackson 5, Whitney Houston, and The Manhattan Transfer. She was a singer in a band when she was younger, but a stroke led to difficulties recalling memories. While listening to the Jackson 5 with Gasataya and Olivia Nelson ’21, Linda’s face lights up as she talks about a memory of singing these songs with her brother and mother. The lyrics come easily: “Just call my name, and I’ll be there,” Linda and the students sing in unison. Later, Linda says, “I hadn’t heard that in years, and I sang all the words. It’s very nice.”

Gasataya, a Ruth B. Rouse Scholar and Linley R. and Helen P. Coykendall Scholar, says, “I felt as if I was able to give Linda a gift. Although it was a memory that she had within her, she was unable to retrieve it, but I had the ability to get it for her with music. I love the fact that in some shape or form, I can affect someone in a positive way.”

Gasataya adds that the project has broadened her own horizons. “Interacting with people from outside the college has helped me to look past my life and into the life of another,” she says. “I feel as if I have become more appreciative of the small things in my life that should not be taken for granted.”

Hearing his students talk about making connections with others and experiencing personal growth is music to Lloyd’s ears. “As I get older myself, I find it’s not only thinking but emotion that’s important in teaching,” Lloyd says. “I want students to grow in kindness and understanding while they’re at Trinity and for the rest of their lives. Cognitive empathy is about learning to understand the world from another point of view, and musical empathy is a variation; it’s a lot closer to the heart than the mind.”

Want to know what some Avery Heights residents are listening to these days? Download their playlists.