With just a few notes, listeners can tap into an array of emotions — happiness, sadness, nostalgia, love and anger.
It can also trigger memories, including first dances, first dates, birthdays and anniversaries.
Dan Cohen believes music can help those who are suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia connect with the outside world.
Cohen is the executive director of Music & Memory, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to bringing "personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life" to nursing homes throughout the United States.
His tale is told in Michael Rossato Bennett's documentary "Alive Inside: A story of Music & Memory," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last Saturday.
The film follows Cohen as he visits nursing homes with donated iPod Shuffles and shares music with the residents.
The result is remarkable. Many of the patients seem to awaken after they have closed themselves off from the outside world due to these illnesses. Some sing. Some dance and all of them begin talking and sharing memories.
Cohen got the idea to introduce music to nursing homes after hearing an NPR report in 2006.
"It said that iPods were everywhere," Cohen said. "I thought sure, kids and some adults have them, but then I thought about nursing homes. If I were in a nursing home, I would want access to my favorite 1960s music."
He did an Internet search about how many nursing homes are using iPods and couldn't find one.
"So I called a local, 600-bed county facility in New York and asked if we could see if there was any added value of personalizing patients' music," he said.
Cohen arrived with a handful of iPods and his laptop.
"It was a definitive hit with the residents," he said. "I learned that some of these people had been separated from their favorite music for decades and that reconnection rekindled a sense of enjoyment and pleasure in life."
Shortly afterwards, Cohen connected with Shelly & Donald Rubin Foundation, which enabled him to bring iPods into three other nursing homes.
"I asked the foundation if they could help me find a filmmaker to get just a few minutes of footage that we could put on the Internet so people can see for themselves what I am seeing," Cohen said.
That's when he connected with Michael Rossato Bennett. The two men made a short video clip in 2012 and posted it online.
The clip went viral and racked up more than nine million views.
Once Rossato Bennett saw what Cohen did, he knew they had to make a film.
"They brought someone out named Henry who had been [physically] bent over and basically uncommunicative for nearly 10 years," Rossato Bennett said. "Dan knew he liked Cab Calloway when he was young, so we put the music on and Henry started singing."
While it was great to see Henry "wake up," Rossato Bennett wasn't prepared for what happened next.
"I thought he would go back to what he was like when we took off the headphones, but he didn't," the filmmaker said. "His mind was still awake from whatever the music had done to his brain and he talked with me. He was a poet and these beautiful words were coming out of his mouth and he was responding to my questions."
The filming of "Alive Inside" was a four-year odyssey, Rossato Bennett said.
"What I really learned was that some of these places we house these people in and the drugs we give them, take away their aliveness," he said. "I realized if I did the film right, I could help Dan change the lives of one million people.
"This was something I could do," he said. "I could help give a bit of life back to these people and it's something we should do."
Cohen founded Music & Memory because he wanted to take the project further.
"There are five million people with Alzheimer's in the U.S.," he said. "Out of them, two million have advanced dementia and are viewed by a majority of the public as people who can't experience pleasure.
"It was surprising to me that music could bypass all that and come in from the backdoor to people's emotional system, which is still intact," Cohen said. "The goal is to make this a standard of care in all nursing homes and other long-term care facilities."
So far, Music & Memory has 400 nursing homes in 36 states that implement the program.
"Families are thrilled with this program and facilities are thrilled because they want the people that they are taking care of to feel better, to connect and be more engaged in life," Cohen said. "There are 13,000 nursing homes in the United States and our goal is to get every one of them to make the music available to their patients. That's why we're also asking for iPod donations."
People can visit www.musicandmemory.org and donate their used iPod Shuffles.
(See also the story titled "iPod donations needed for nursing home patients").
Having the film premiere at Sundance will help them achieve this goal, Rossato Bennett said.
"That we're here just says that people are ready to have this conversation," he said. "That's the greatest gift that we could ever have gotten."
Michael Rossato Bennett's "Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory" is a U.S. Documentary Competition film in the Sundance Film Festival. It will screen:
Friday, Jan. 24, 9:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City.
Saturday, Jan. 25, 11:30 a.m., Library Center Theater, Park City.
For more information, visit www.sundance.org/festival.