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How music evokes memories in people with dementia

3rd January 2018


Anyone who has personal experience of caring for a loved one who is living with dementia will know what a completely life-changing condition it can be for all concerned. It can be extremely painful witnessing people we grew up with starting to have serious problems with their memory, and difficult beyond words when it gets to the point that the person with dementia cannot often recognise even their closest family members.

As time goes on and dementia becomes something which more and more people have to deal with, research into the condition and the understanding of it has increased and, as a consequence, so has the advice on how to help those affected make the most out of whatever cognitive abilities they have.

It may surprise some to learn the extent to which music can still play an effective part in helping the lives of those with even advanced dementia. Research has shown that people with severely reduced memory can still recognise music which they first heard many decades ago and, more and more, it is becoming a vital component of many people’s care around the country.

Several of the UK’s leading authorities on dementia, some of whom are specialists in integrating music into the care of those who are living with the condition, have now spoken about this subject. Read on to find out how music is playing an increasingly important role in one of the most challenging areas of healthcare.

Dementia UK


Dementia UK is a specialist organisation which provides support to the families of people living with dementia via its ‘Admiral Nurse’ service. Admiral Nurses offer both practical and emotional guidance to carers and patients alike and are determined to ensure that all those who have dementia are able to live their lives to the full.  

Dr Karen Harrison-Dening, Head of Research and Publications at Dementia UK, spoke about how she believes music is making a real difference to the lives of those with dementia every day, and how people do not need any specialist training to see the potentially restorative effects music can have in their loved ones:

“Music is increasingly being used to help people with dementia relive past experiences and tap into powerful emotions.

“You could try playing the person a piece of music played at their wedding, a favourite teenage song or even a lullaby sung to them when they were a child, and see how they react. Music can provide a source of comfort and pleasure for people living with dementia.

“Music can provide a way to help connect to the person with dementia. You could try humming or singing along, or maybe tapping out the rhythm near to the person. It could help to start with gentle, quiet music as loud music can be unsettling. Also, music can cause very strong emotional responses, so be prepared to turn it off if the person seems at all unsettled.”

For anyone struggling to look after someone with dementia or looking for advice on how to use music to communicate with a loved one with dementia, please call Dementia UK on 0800 888 6678 from 9am to 9pm Monday to Friday, and from 9am to 5pm during the weekend.

Playlist for Life


Playlist for Life is a uniquely simple yet highly effective charity – based in Scotland but working all over the UK – which is dedicated to improving the lives of people with dementia through the playing of the patients’ own music. The team at Playlist for Life spoke about their mission, the charity’s origins, and how they are getting their message out to the wider community:

“Playlist for Life is a UK-wide charity and we champion the use of personally meaningful music for people living with dementia – autobiographical music, the songs that are most closely linked to our memories. Something as simple as someone’s favourite music collected together on an iPod/MP3 player is a tool that anyone caring for a person with dementia can use, but only if they know about it. Our aim is that everyone with dementia in the UK has access to a playlist of personally-meaningful music. The unique advantage of a playlist on an iPod/MP3 player is that the person with dementia can benefit from their music at any time, day or night, alone at home or on a hospital trolley. A playlist is available whenever it is needed.

“There are decades of research that back-up the theory that music can help people with dementia and we have witnessed ourselves that integrating personal music in to care can help manage the symptoms of dementia and reduce the need for ‘as required’ drugs. Read how doctors at a Glasgow care home have prescribed Playlist for Life for 8 residents following the introduction of playlists: newsflash-gps-prescribe-playlists-for-care-home-residents.

“We provide information and tools for family members and carers, and training for care professionals, to help them find the most effective and meaningful music and advise them on how to incorporate the use of personal playlists in to the daily life of the person with dementia.

“Playlist for Life was started in 2013 by BBC Scotland broadcaster and author Sally Magnusson. Sally’s mother Mamie lived with dementia for a number of years before she died and Sally was struck by how music was the one thing that kept her connected to her mother during their journey together. Sally wrote a powerful book about her mother titled Where Memories Go, a Sunday Times Bestseller.” 


Sarah Metcalfe, the CEO of Playlist for Life, is on the Commission for Dementia and Music, which was set up to explore the potential for music to be integrated further into the care of people living with the condition and is a further demonstration of the real ambition that exists to broaden the research into this area. In September, Sarah also wrote a blog about the subject for the Guardian, which has so far been shared over 3,600 times.

Playlist for Life also explained how there are now “19 certified Playlist for Life Establishments (care and nursing homes and hospital wards) across the UK, where personal playlists have been incorporated in to daily care for residents and patients”. 

Playlist for Life continues to develop all the time, and this is evidenced by their recently launched app, which is completely free to download and was tested by people with dementia as part of the design process.

Carers Trust 4all


Finally, Carers Trust 4all, one of several care organisations throughout the UK which runs regular music and singing sessions for people with dementia and their carers, spoke about the fortnightly sessions they organise, and why they have proven to be so popular:

“Musical Memories is a fortnightly singing and music group for people with a poor memory, or dementia, and the unpaid carers who support them.

“The group offers singing sessions and the chance to meet new people and talk over a drink as well as increased social interaction outside the group through forming circles of support.  

“The aim is to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of singing the songs we remember, and the memories we associate with music and lyrics.

Why Music?

“The group is based around music and singing as they have been shown to have a wide range of benefits for people with memory problems or dementia:

  • Singing together is great fun! Singing in a group also makes it easier for people to quickly make friends.
  • Almost everyone can enjoy music, even those people who have lost the power of speech can hum along, tap their feet, clap their hands, play percussion instruments or even dance!
  • Singing also brings health benefits. For example, it improves lung capacity and improves breath control. It also stimulates memory and conversation.”


Carers Trust 4all also provided some quotes from individuals who attend the group, which offers a fantastic insight into the great work which the Musical Memories sessions do every fortnight:

"I sing a lot at home now, I find the group very uplifting and I've made new friends. I don’t feel so lonely anymore and I have something to look forward to.”

"It revives old memories and helps me overcome my sadness."

“I’m so grateful for the Musical Memories group; I know that mum goes out once a fortnight which helps to limit her isolation and gives her something to talk about when I ring, she enjoys telling me who she has been talking to!”


As has been demonstrated, there is a wealth of evidence out there to show that music really does have a vital role to play in the care of people with dementia in the UK.

Anyone who is reading this and knows a loved one who is living with the condition should consider contacting one or more of the above organisations to find out more about their work and how their family member could benefit from it. Whether they are still able to live independently and use their own accessible bath or shower and kitchen or reside in a care home, everyone should be able to find the help that is needed.

Image Credit: Carers Trust 4all, Ben Stassen, Marco Verch, Adrian Tormo, Lukas Budimaier, Fede Casanova

This news article is from Handicare UK. Articles that appear on this website are for information purposes only.