FARGO — Sitting in a circle in the Devonshire wing at Touchmark in Fargo, several older adults chatter as Ashley Holten walks front and center with her guitar strapped to her back and tote bags full of instruments.

She greets the group and takes her place. Some of the chatter bugs turn their attention to Holten as she begins to strum along, asking everyone how they are doing today and if they know any polkas. Holten begins to sing and faces around the room light up. Soon the majority of folks in the room are singing or humming along, and almost everyone is tapping a toe or moving around to the music.

But what is it about a polka that has the power to bring a grandmother out of her zoned-in stage, or turn a chatty grandpa into a singing fool?

It's called music therapy, and the therapists at Music Therapy in Motion bring their talents to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, homes, schools and many other places around the region, turning music into memories and getting everyone moving and grooving along to the beat.

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Music therapy

In the medical world, music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to improve clients' quality of life. It's used for many different issues, from stress relief to mental, emotional and behavioral problems, as well as in treating depression and anxiety and to help elderly clients deal with memory loss associated with Alzheimer's Disease and other dementia.

Emily Wangen, a board-certified and licensed musical therapist and founder of Music Therapy in Motion in Fargo, says music therapy is all about neuroplasticity.

"Music therapy is an allied health profession," Wangen says, sitting in her office at Music Therapy in Motion. "We use music to achieve non-music goals. In a standard music therapy group (for memory care patients) we will have people in a circle and sing songs that they're familiar with, that they recognize from when they were back in their glory days."

Unlocking memories

Favorite songs can serve as a bridge to a memory, stirring up emotions and helping us to relax, or rile us up and make us cheerful and excited.

This is easily seen in those with Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other cognitive disorders.

"It might be as they age and the disease becomes more prevalent, sometimes finding the right words for things is difficult," Wangen says. "But they can still sing a song word for word. You might have Grandma, who has played the piano for years and years during her church days, sit in front of a piano that (music therapists) might've brought in one day and she'll get excited and start saying 'Oh! Oh!!' (As if she recognizes the object) and she won't know the word for piano. But you set it in front of her and start playing the opening lines of 'Amazing Grace' and pretty soon she will start singing "How sweet the sound . . . " and pick it up and play it like nobody's business. It's like it's still there."

Music in motion

Moving from polkas to working with rhythm sticks at the Thursday session of the Music in Motion class at Touchmark, Holten asks the group to tap, tap, tap along with the beat as they work their way through classics like "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "Polly-wally-doodle-all-the-day," before pulling out their "Blue Suede Shoes" as they bring it back to the days of Elvis.

Musical therapist, Ashley Holten, passes out rhythm sticks to residents at Touchmark as part of her session. Music Therapy in Motion therapists bring their talents to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, homes, schools and many other places around the region, turning music into memories and getting everyone moving and grooving along to the beat. Emma Vatnsdal / The Forum
Musical therapist, Ashley Holten, passes out rhythm sticks to residents at Touchmark as part of her session. Music Therapy in Motion therapists bring their talents to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, homes, schools and many other places around the region, turning music into memories and getting everyone moving and grooving along to the beat. Emma Vatnsdal / The Forum

"Music always attaches to the healthiest part of the brain," Wangen says. "Even if the brain is affected by a disease or an ailment or an injury, music will always connect to the healthiest part. It bridges the gap, essentially, between the receptor and the area of work. Increasing neuroplasticity is what it's all about."

Wangen also says that beyond just singing, the music therapists, like herself and those she works with, are thinking about the group member's arms, recognizing that oftentimes as people age, or their disease progresses, they can get stuck in a rut and can't multitask. Combining music with motions to engage every part of the body, while giving them the opportunity to work all the areas of the brain.

"We are giving them opportunities to express and get back to the reality orientations," she says. "We are looking at what is the patient's baseline of functioning, what can they do and where can we challenge them and take them to the next level."