Is singing always more powerful than instrumental music in boosting wellbeing? This is one question Medley plans to explore more widely. If it is more powerful, then why is this? Many songs have a strong narrative element. Is it this storytelling which makes songs memorable because people can identify with them? Do we have an innate instinct to respond more to voice than to other sounds? Do lyrics simply add another layer, as words and music combine so that hearing a song is more striking? Or maybe there are just more opportunities to take part, as more people can sing than play an instrument (although clapping in time or improvising on percussion, say, do enable people to respond to instrumental music).
In exploring some of the ways music and song can improve life for people of all ages, I came across the work of The Smiling Sessions, which for the hast ten years has brightened the lives of older people in sheltered housing and care homes through singalongs (https://www.smilingsessions.com/) These singalongs clearly have a very positive impact and I wanted to learn about the ideas behind them. I’m grateful to Alison Jones, Artistic Director, for telling me more.
I asked Alison whether singing’s impact is different and why that might be: “Older people definitely relate more to singing than they would to instrumental music. Singing triggers memories – usually happy ones but sometimes sad ones. People can relate to songs; it may remind them of a significant person or event in their lives. Singing has always been a great means of raising spirits and keeping people of all ages healthy. Now more and more research is showing the power of singing to heal the brain, the imagination and the heart.”
She went on: “Singing is very inclusive; people feel included in the experience if they can sing and take part. They want to join in. It’s been wonderful to see our remote sing-a-long Smiling Sessions reaching and helping so many people who are still isolated because of Covid, raising their mood and enhancing their quality of life.”
Another important aspect of music and song’s impact on wellbeing is the question of repertoire. With so many possibilities across all music styles and eras, it could be very dfficult to identify which songs or pieces of music might have more impact. Songs can attract by their familiarity, but also by their novelty. Even a new song can remind you of an older one, while new covers of old songs can help you enjoy a once familiar song in a new light. So I wondered how The Smiling Sessions go about choosing which songs to feature in their singalongs. Alison Jones explained:
“For ten years now we have asked our users to tell us what their favourite songs are. With an age range of 65-105, this has resulted in a huge spectrum of generations of music. Over the years we have built up a library of well over 100 songs, plus 20 Christmas songs.”
Around 60% of The Smiling Sessions’ participants across sheltered housing and care homes have dementia, while the percentage specifically among their care home participants is far higher. Now that music and song’s importance in dementia is widely recognized, this further highlights The Smiling Sessions’ impact.
Maybe you could share your own thoughts and experiences on Medley’s Facebook group, which has only just started? https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Do you agree that singing has more impact than instrumental music? And why do we respond more to some songs than to others? It would be great to hear any thoughts or ideas you would like to share.