Music and dementia

Throughout our lives, we listen to, take part in, and dance to music and sound.

For people with dementia – even those who have lost their ability to communicate or are at the end of their life – music can be a powerful way to trigger positive feelings and connect with other people.

How can music affect the brain and body?

Research shows music can help reduce heart rate and blood pressure, relieve muscle tension and help people manage pain.

It can also trigger feel-good hormones called endorphins, which may ease depression, anxiety and agitation.

Music can have a positive impact on people’s mental abilities, too, improving:

  • attention and concentration
  • cognition (thinking)
  • memory
  • speech and non-verbal communication skills

All of these processes can be impaired by dementia, making music extremely beneficial for people with the diagnosis.

The benefits of music for people with dementia

Listening to or engaging in music – for example, by singing, dancing or playing instruments – can help people with dementia develop and maintain relationships with others and improve their wellbeing.

It can:

  • help them to express their feelings and ideas, verbally and non-verbally
  • act as a prompt for reminiscing
  • help them to ‘tell their story’ and share their personal history
  • encourage physical exercise, dance or movement
  • encourage social interaction, reduce isolation, and help to engage people in group activities
  • reduce distress – it may be particularly helpful while giving personal care like washing and dressing

Music can also help a person with dementia to connect with the past by evoking memories, feelings and emotions that they might otherwise find hard to express.

For example, they may find it easier to recall memories when they hear pieces of music that are significant to them – perhaps their favourite song from the past, or a lullaby they used to sing to their children.

Using music to help a person with dementia

Music can be used in a group or individually – both at home and in care settings. You could try:

  • listening and singing along to favourite pieces of music
  • listening to music played through headphones
  • taking part in a music or singing group or choir
  • playing instruments
  • listening to a live performance
  • compiling a personal playlist that they can listen to on a smart speaker, mobile phone or tablet
  • watching a favourite musical
  • listening to a radio station that plays music from the past

It’s important to choose music that the person knows and enjoys, as they will be more likely to react positively to it.

You can do this by asking them or other family members and friends what they like, or by trying out music that was popular in the person’s youth or within their cultural background.

Start with quiet, gentle music and see how the person reacts.

You can use music to engage and connect with the person, for example by:

  • holding their hand
  • tapping to the rhythm
  • singing or humming along
  • moving or dancing with them

You can also use pictures or photos alongside the music to reminisce and share memories.

If the person seems uncomfortable or distressed, try something different – it may just be that they don’t like that particular music or song, but bear in mind that music can also trigger negative emotions or bad memories.

If this happens, the best response may just be to turn off the music and sit with them to offer comfort and reassurance.

Music therapy and dementia

Music therapy involves a trained person working with an individual or a group, using music to help them express themselves and communicate with others.

For some people with dementia, music therapy has been shown improve their thinking, feeling, perception, mood and behaviour. It can be used as part of a care plan.

In many areas, there are music and singing groups for people with dementia, and care homes often run music-based activities too.

You can also search for music therapy services and independent music therapists at bamt.org/music-therapy/music-therapy-in-the-uk.

Sources of support

If you would like to speak to a specialist Admiral Nurse about using music to help a person with dementia, or any other aspect of dementia, call our free Helpline on 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-5pm, every day except 25th December) or email helpline@dementiauk.org.

If you would prefer to pre-book a phone or video appointment with an Admiral Nurse, please visit dementiauk.org/get-support/closer-to-home/

Dementia UK information that you might find helpful:

Coping with distress
dementiauk.org/get-support/understanding-changes-in-behaviour/coping-with-distress/

Dealing with restlessness
dementiauk.org/get-support/understanding-changes-in-behaviour/dealing-with-restlessness/

Anxiety and depression in dementia
dementiauk.org/get-support/maintaining-health-in-dementia/managing-anxiety-and-depression-in-a-person-living-with-dementia/

Other resources:

Music for Dementia
musicfordementia.org.uk/

British Association for Musical Therapy
bamt.org/

Live Music Now – working with older people
livemusicnow.org.uk/working-with-older-people/

Playlist for Life
playlistforlife.org.uk/

Singing for the Brain
alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/your-support-services/singing-for-the-brain

Music Mirrors – capturing the sound of memories
musicmirrors.co.uk/

m4d radio – themed radio stations for people with dementia
m4dradio.com/

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Publication date: February 2021
Review date: February 2023