Music and dementia

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Music and sound play an important part throughout our lives whether through listening, taking part or dancing. We can respond to music from a very early age, before words and language are developed, and this continues even when verbal abilities are lost and/or we are at the end of our lives.

Interacting with music can be ‘passive’ ie, listening to recorded or live music, or ‘active’, in which people take a direct part through playing an instrument or singing.

Music can trigger emotions, feelings and memories in people, particularly when there is a personal connection to their past experiences.

Music and dementia

Music can be used to communicate and engage with people with dementia and is often recommended to help develop and maintain  relationships and improve wellbeing.

Research is increasingly demonstrating the positive effects of music for people with dementia in improving general attention, cognition (thinking), memory, speech and communication skills. It has also been shown to help reduce agitation and depression for some people.

Music can help reduce heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety as well as triggering the release of endorphins which can help distract us from pain. For people with dementia, music can help the person to express feelings and connect with past memories, which may be easier to recall. This might involve  playing music that is significant, such as favourite songs, a piece of music from a wedding, or a lullaby the person used to sing to their children.

Music can be used in a range of ways, either individually or in a group, such as:

  • Listening and/or singing along to favourite pieces of music
  • Listening to music played through headphones
  • Singing in a group or choir
  • Playing instruments
  • Listening to a live performance

Music-based activities such as developing a personal playlist, watching a favourite musical, listening to a radio station that plays music from the person’s past and taking part in a music or singing group are recommended for people with dementia both at home and in care settings. These activities should be informed by an understanding of the person’s individual needs and preferences and can be used as part of a care plan.

Music therapy may also be recommended and involves a trained music therapist working either with a group or an individual, using music to support and help people express themselves and communicate with others.  Music therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety for some people with dementia, as well as leading to improvements in their thinking, feeling, perception, mood and behaviour.

Music can provide a powerful and pleasurable way to communicate and connect with someone, especially when other forms of communication are lost.

What are the benefits of music?

  • Helps people with dementia express feelings and ideas
  • Encourages physical exercise, dance or movement
  • Encourages social interaction with others, reduces social isolation and promotes activity in groups
  • Can prompt reminiscing
  • Singing or playing a favourite piece of music can lessen distress and may be particularly helpful while giving personal care
  • Helps the person with dementia ‘tell their story’ and give voice to their personal history

Tips for using music

  • Choose music that the person likes: Most people will react more positively to music they have listened to frequently as well as music from their youth. Ask the person what music they like or if they can’t tell you, ask family or friends. If there is no information available, investigate popular music from the person’s cultural background and era and try it out
  • Watch to see how the person reacts: If someone seems uncomfortable or distressed in response to the music, try something different. It may be that they just don’t like that particular type of music or song. If they respond positively then use the music to engage with them. Does the person tap their fingers or hum along? Try joining in!
  • Use music to interact with the person: Listening to music
    and/or singing can trigger memories, feelings and emotions that aren’t expressed at any other time. Holding someone’s hand, tapping to the rhythm, moving or dancing may provide an additional way of connecting with the person. Using pictures or photos alongside music can also provide a way to reminisce and share memories for families

Things to be aware of

  • Start with gentle quiet music and involve the person wherever possible
  • Simply having loud music in the background could be over stimulating and sometimes distressing
  • Music can awaken negative emotions and memories as well as positive ones. Watch out for how the person reacts. If there are any signs of distress, turn the music off. However, expressing sadness may be a normal reaction to a memory or an association to the music. Just sitting with the person during this time and offering comfort may be the best response

Sources of support

Music for Dementia

British Association of Music Therapists

Live Music now

Playlist for Life

Singing for the Brain

Music Mirrors

Dementia UK resource on Life story work

Dementia UK leaflet on Anxiety and depression

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