Let’s face the music…
After 17 years in engineering Ed Muirhead decided to follow his passion for music, enrolling on the Music Therapy MSc at Queen Margaret University. Ed is currently based at an Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Resource Centre for the duration of his second year placement and is really enjoying the challenge of working with music therapeutically in a variety of ways, particularly relating to dementia. In his blog this week, Ed shares a snapshot of music therapy in action.
Picture the scene, Harry* makes a joke about Gene Kelly, Nancy* laughs. Harry was saying he’s not seen Mr Kelly for a while. He talks as if discussing a friend he used to know, and in a sense that’s true – Harry is a dancer, in the past he took part in competitive ballroom dancing with his wife all over the country, long before “Strictly”.
We’ve just sung “Singing in the rain” – hence our discussion of Gene Kelly – it’s one of the songs Nancy and Harry particularly love to sing. Nancy’s voice leads us through the melody, Harry sings and adds rhythm too, the well-timed pattern of his tapping reminiscent of those famous dance moves on the wet pavement. The music has helped Harry connect with people in the room, and re-connect with memories from his past. Nancy’s face lights up as she sings, she says “I love coming here” and our group seems to become stronger each week.
During my placement as a music therapy student with Alzheimer Scotland, connections like this have happened several times already.
Music triggers memories and a certain piece of music may remind someone of a particular memory. We sing songs and make music with guitar, piano and percussion – the music is at a speed and in a key that suits the singers. Each person gets involved in their own way, whether that’s singing the whole song or just the chorus, playing harmonica or tambourine.
By creating the music live, we can adjust the tempo slightly if required, or even change the songs as we please! For example, recently Nancy added her own words to “Que Sera, Sera” – telling us something of her story. Two weeks before, I’d suggested we write a song, but she’d said that would be impossible, and yet we found a way to begin – adding words to a familiar melody to help communicate. And it didn’t stop there, the next verse I added lyrics about Harry and his dancing, finishing with a verse about myself.
These are just two tiny snapshots of music therapy in action, tapping into something that may not be obvious when you meet someone with dementia. It seems that musical memories can be retained by the brain longer than other types of memory. And in recent research, music therapy has been shown to reduce depression and delay deterioration of cognitive functions, particularly short-term recall (Chu et al., 2013).
A few years ago I was inspired by meeting people with dementia, some who rarely spoke, but would sing songs from their childhood, bringing tears of joy to the eyes of carers. It was one of the key factors when I decided to change my career and train in music therapy, bringing a lifelong love of music into play in ways that can help others.
If I were to ask you today, “What’s your favourite music memory and why do you think it resonates with you?” What would you answer? What live music would you like to begin to play and sing?
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
CHU, H., YANG, C., LIN, Y., OU, K., LEE, T., O’BRIEN, A. P. and CHOU, K., 2013. The impact of group music therapy on depression and cognition in elderly persons with dementia: A randomized controlled study. Biological Research For Nursing. May, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 209–217.
Ed is a singer, songwriter and musician. He is a second year student at Queen Margaret University, working towards a Master of Science in Music Therapy. Ed is on placement at Alzheimer Scotland one day per week for the full academic year.
Ed can be contacted on twitter @ed_sings