Play It Again

Listening to Classic FM’s Hall Of Fame countdown over the Easter weekend, I thought how music has such different impacts on us. Familiarity, musical memory, is important – but so too is novelty, hearing new music. Maybe balancing the two is most beneficial for wellbeing? And now comes UK Music’s The Power Of Music report, published yesterday, highlighting the impacts music has on a range of issues from depression to dementia. One of its recommendations is for health and care staff to train in sharing music with patients: signalling just how important it can be.

Photo by Anastasia Kolchina on

Every year Classic FM’s Hall of Fame is an opportunity for listeners to choose their three best loved pieces of classical music, then hear the top 300 counted down. Year upon year, some pieces climb higher in the poll, while others fall. That unpredictability draws listeners in. The top 10 sees some winners and losers each year (no Mozart this year, which is unusual) but at the very top of the chart Raph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending reigns supreme at No 1 almost every year. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 is pretty well its only rival.

So why is familiarity so important to us when we listen to music? Why do we respond more to music we know? Why do so many people choose one particular piece year upon year in the Hall of Fame?

Over time, as I hear a piece of music or a song again and again, it becomes familiar so that I recognise it more quickly, knowing where it’s going, remembering particular chords, motifs or harmonies before I hear them. With a song, I might remember some of the lyrics, maybe the chorus or refrain. Instead of wondering what the song’s about or what the piece of music will be like, I focus and respond more quickly.

Dementia research has highlighted how helpful musical memory can be. It’s usually formed during what are known as the “memory bump” years (before we hit 30). Hearing music from our youth can revive memory in later life, even in people who have dementia. As musical memory is one of the last forms of memory to be lost to dementia, this can be a very rare and precious way to engage people. Musical memory is also striking because we associate music with other memories: events and times when we remember hearing that piece or song, maybe for the first time. Maybe happy times, maybe sad, but by linking to another memory, the music becomes more deeply rooted and becomes part of our own story.

But I do think that hearing new music (new to us, or new altogether) is important as well – discovering the unknown, which is a great stimulus. Sometimes just hearing one new piece or song could unlock an entire new genre you might never have enjoyed before, or a new singer or composer. Classic FM’s recent series From Couch To Opera House In 7 Weeks, presented by Jennifer Saunders, has been a chance to get to know opera, a genre unfamiliar to many of us. And musical likes and dislikes change over time, so we might find particular music more calming or exciting now than we used to. What matters is going on experiencing music in all different ways. Another of UK Music’s The Power Of Music report’s recommendations is for older people to learn to play an instrument, which can help cognition. The music plays on…

What do you think? It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group

Published by medleyisobel

My name is Isobel and I run Medley, an online initiative sharing art, nature and music for health and wellbeing.

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