The power of music

The power of music

Tuesday 16th April 2019

People respond to music from a very early age, even before words and language are developed. This continues even towards the end of our lives, when verbal abilities may be lost.

Music accesses different parts of the brain to language, so it can be used to communicate or engage with someone who has been diagnosed with dementia, even if they no longer speak or respond to words.

Music can also be a useful way to change somebody's mood, especially during personal care. If a person diagnosed with dementia resists efforts to help them get dressed, playing soothing music or a favourite song can help lessen any distress.

Playlists offer a great way of capturing all the songs or pieces of music that make up the soundtrack to life.

A playlist is unique to each person and can help express identity. When making a playlist for someone else, particularly those who are no longer able to communicate using words, it enables you to tap into who they are, their likes and dislikes, memories and, most importantly, their identity.

In a beautiful documentary called Alive Inside, dementia patient Henry Dryer is seen slumped in a wheelchair, rarely talking or moving. Then, when a nurse places headphones on him, Henry's feet start to shuffle. The 92-year-old moves his arms then sings.

"There are a million and a half people in nursing homes in this country," director Michael Rossato-Bennett told ABC News. "When I saw what happened to Henry, whenever you see a human being awaken like that, it touches something deep inside you." Rossato-Bennett said he took on the documentary project to promote Music & Memory, a non-profit organisation that takes iPods with personalised music to dementia patients in nursing home care.

Geri Hall, a clinical nurse specialist at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, said music activates a part of the brain that stays active despite dementia. "There's something about music that cuts through right up until the very end of the disease," she said, adding that familiar music can help people with dementia feel comfortable. "It calms them, it increases socialisation, and it decreases the need for mood controlling medications."

If you're going to create a playlist, here are five steps to get you started:

1. Create a list of potential songs

You're looking for music that is meaningful to the person. You can ask them or their family about their favourite tunes, or you can start looking for clues. How old are they? Where did they come from? Where did they live?

2. Dig deeper for clues

Are there photos showing the person at a musical event? Do they have a record or CD collection? Are there any programmes or ticket stubs stored safely for posterity?

3. Track down fragments of songs

There are lots of great apps and websites to help you identify songs when you can't remember the title. You can also type lyrics into Google to help you find those elusive songs.

4. Test your long list

Make sure the room is calm and comfortable. You will need to have access to the internet to play the music on your phone or laptop to the person for whom you are making the playlist. You may wish to use a journal to help you record what happens. As each song plays, take time to focus on them and look for any reaction or response. This might be eyes opening or moving around, fingers or toes tapping, and a change in facial expression. They might even become more alert or speak.

5. Watch out for 'red flag' songs

Music can transport people to another time or place. That is a great gift, but you do not want to take someone back to a bad place. Tears are not always negative, but if someone becomes very agitated or distressed in response to a certain song, you should stop the session and discard that track. Remember to keep a note of 'red flag' songs so that they are not played again.

The BBC has created Music Memories to help you locate the music that people with dementia might enjoy. There are snippets of popular and classical music, as well as theme tunes that could bring back memories. You can find it at: