The Power of Music

By Yvonne Manson, Dementia Consultant

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Music can be a very powerful tool in promoting wellbeing in dementia care. Think about how you feel when certain songs come on the radio? You can be driving along in complete silence and then a song comes on and before you know it everyone in the car is belting out a tune, or, have you ever been somewhere and a song comes on that just stops you in your tracks, reminding you of a time or person in your life? Music has the power to directly and almost immediately impact our emotions and this is no different for someone with dementia. There are two strands to music in wellbeing, firstly there is that reminiscence aspect and secondly the social and active side of music.

Playlist for Life

Playlist for life was first launched in 2013 by Sally Magnusson and is used in the community, hospitals and care homes across the country. Sally founded the playlist for life after seeing the positive effect music had for her mother who had dementia. Three years ago in April of 2014, I attended the launch of the pilot group in Dunfermline of the Playlist for life and listened as Sally and Andy spoke passionately of the therapy and the impact it can have on peoples lives, particularly those living within the care home setting.

Playlist for Life involves finding out what songs mean something to a person. Our lives are full of music, it is in the background of many of our life events, nursery rhymes, hymns, wedding songs, theme tunes, our first dance, work songs, and listening to it can transport us back to these various points in our life. We will all have a unique playlist as we have all lived unique lives. Tom Kitwood speaks of the five psychological needs for a person with dementia: comfort, identity, attachment, occupation and inclusion and playlist for life can support all of these needs, however it has a strong place in identity and comfort. The music on a person’s playlist for life can help them connect to their identity, evoke the memories from their past and offer that connectedness to others which can bring comfort.

In the 3 years since I trained in using playlist for life I have witnessed the powerful effect it can have. I have seen several people with dementia with word finding and communication difficulties, singing full songs much to the shock of those around them. I have also seen people with dementia who are restless and walk sometimes at a great pace getting comfort from the songs and sitting down to listen to them or slowing their pace as they walk.

Relationships with loved ones

Family members, who struggle to engage and communicate, feel a real emotional connection when a wedding song came on and the person with dementia reached out for their hand bring a moment for comfort for both parties.

There are too many examples to list but let’s take away dementia and think of when you listen to music? We listen to music when we are sad to lift our mood, when we are happy, we have music on at celebrations, we listen to music to remember that concert we attended or maybe to remember our wedding day, many people have birthing songs, and we also choose funeral songs, music is a big part of all of our lives and that shouldn’t and doesn’t change if we are diagnosed with dementia.

Music nowadays is accessible in different formats such as: Spotify, Itunes, IPods, Amazon Echo and Alexa; as technology changes, we need to do the same to support our residents.

Care homes are community living and in any lounge area I would expect to see (or hear) a variety of music playing to suit the individual tastes of residents. It is not difficult to create a playlist that is personal to the people living in the care home so that when music is playing in the background each and every person will hear at least one song that they can connect to.

On 1:1 bases, if you have an old IPod that you no longer use, think about donating it to a care home resident. This way, more people living with dementia will have an opportunity to create their own playlist and benefit from the music therapy.

Why not start creating your playlist now? You can find out more about playlist for life by visiting

Oliver Sacks said of music in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain “The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain...Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”

References (accessed 24/04/2017)

Sacks, O. (2008) Musicophilia. Oxford: Picador

Kitwood, T. (1997) Dementia Reconsidered: The Person Comes First. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.