Perhaps the answer lies beyond cognition. “Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus,” the late neurologist Oliver Sacks said in Alive Inside, a documentary film exploring music as a tool to reactivate memories in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Concetta Tomaino, DA, who also appeared in the film, worked with Sacks for more than 35 years. As a music therapist, Tomaino employs musical activations to achieve nonmusical goals, such as recovering speech and movement.

At the beginning of her career, experts believed that brain injury was final. “What fascinated us,” she says of her work with Sacks, “was the fact that people who’d lost [basic motor] function could regain that function if it was done to music. In the 1980s we asked, does the brain change? Now we know it does.”

Tomaino and Salimpoor both point to physical healing tied to music therapy. Improvising on hand drums, for instance, can help people regain motor skills, Tomaino says. And tearful reunions with long-lost memories, as explained in the documentary Alive Inside, strengthen cognitive connections and maintain brain cells, says Salimpoor.