A New Song

When I told someone that I would be writing about singing, music and Parkinson’s Disease, she asked: “But why would music help Parkinson’s?” And her response struck me, because it’s true that the part music can play in many illnesses is far less well known than, say, its impact on dementia. Through recent years so many people and organizations have shared music’s power to revive memory and to reach people who struggle to communicate as their dementia progresses. But there are many other conditions where music and singing can prove beneficial: like Parkinson’s Disease.

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I recently came across Sing To Beat Parkinson’s (www.singtobeat.co.uk) which was founded three years ago. Although quite recent as an organisation, it draws together a network of People With Parkinson’s (PWP) choirs, the first of which began in Kent in 2010, overseen by the Canterbury Cantata Trust. Not only have the choirs expanded across the UK, the model has also been taken up overseas.

While focusing on running choirs, Sing To Beat Parkinson’s is also committed to contributing to research to help understand how and why music and singing benefit people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Its involvement in a 2017 survey found that singing in the choirs boosted emotional wellbeing while also easing anxiety and depression. Taking part was also found to reduce the stigma which can still surround illnesses like Parkinson’s Disease. More recently, Sing To Beat Parkinson’s is partnering with the Sidney de Haan Research Centre on research into singing’s impact on people living under lockdown.

It is obviously an irony that at a time like lockdown when so many people have needed music’s positive impacts more than ever before, most choirs have now been unable to gather for months. Sing To Beat Parkinson’s runs The Isolation Choir, which has shared songs regularly on You Tube. Throughout the last nine months, music and singing online truly have come alive.

A striking feature of music and singing’s impact on different illnesses is that it is not limited to emotional wellbeing alone (important although that is) but also contributes to physical health. Vocal strength can become an issue for people living with Parkinson’s, as their voices fade, but singing has been found to help strengthen their voices. This reminded me of singing’s power to boost lung capacity as well, so that ENO (English National Opera) and Imperial College London are trialling singing projects for people recovering from coron. These aim to ease breathlessness through singing.

I know that dance is also helpful for people with Parkinson’s, either to improve balance and flexibility or boost wellbeing and draw people together. Music will obviously have a part to play in dance’s role here too.

Making music can be affirming, joyful, hopeful, unifying and reassuring. These impacts alone demonstrate how worthwhile it is to explore ways in which music and song might help other illnesses, and experimenting to see how people respond. Some will have sung or played music or years before they became ill, so that an opportunity to go on music making is an important way for them to feel they are still themselves. For others, music making might be a totally new and so a positive new opportunity opened up be or amidst the horrors of illness. So Parkinson’s Disease is one of many illnesses where music and song have enormous scope to contribute. Would you like to share how they have helped you, or how you have seen them help others? To share any responses or thoughts, it would be great if you could post on Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002

Breathing Space

Many people welcome any new year with euphoria, with high hopes of new opportunities. For others a new year might be a time of fear, anxiety, dread or uncertainty over what is to come. To many people every single day is a hurdle, let alone an entire year. People who care for others, or who have severe or life-limiting illnesses, may struggle to look too far ahead. And as England, like many other countries, is now in national lockdown just a few days into 2021, little seems to have improved. Covid-19, disability, illness or depression do not recognize a new year. Midnight on 31st December was never going to clean the slate.

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But maybe the thought that a new year has come could open up some instinct to look at life differently in some small ways. Through successive lockdowns, many people have turned to art, or to nature, or to music. Nature has gone on growing regardless. Still the music plays. And art is there to be created. Yet some people may have far less time for art, nature or music, but need them more than ever. So maybe more than committing to any new year resolution, it’s more a question of how we see art (or music, or nature). Once we grow used to turning to painting or crochet or songs or walking in difficult times or simply in the everyday, it can become an instinct.

One strength of turning to art, music or nature is that they can help us in the here and now, in any odd moments of the day. A major issue for people with caring responsibilities is the loss of freedom and of opportunities for themselves as life comes to revolve around their loved ones’ needs. In small ways, art could open up a glimmer of opportunity to go on experiencing life for themselves. People might be so weighed down by what could seem the drudgery of caring that thinking to draw or paint could seem pointless. But it could slowly become second nature, and it could help.

What is particularly liberating about art is the way it frees us from language. So many experiences, so many of the thoughts which might overwhelm us, express themselves through language. Drawing, painting or modelling allow us to turn away from language to focus on colour, line and form. So art might become a refuge, an escape, a balance or even a different perspective. Art also helps us interact with the world. As I’ve written before, painting and drawing make me more observant, helping me to focus on what I see and experience, making me more aware of the present moment.

For many people, organized group art might be the most helpful, like Arts for Life’s Create And Chat initiative, which involves parents and carers of young people who have complex mental health needs. Others might find it more practical to experiment with art for themselves on the rare occasions when they have time. Colouring, paper cutting or just scribbling, any art form.

It could be important to recognize that art won’t simply solve the issues people endure – although that depends on the issues. There will still be illness or disability or bereavement. But art might open up important breathing space.

Medley will be running a free online art for wellbeing project throughout the month of February. Taking birds as its theme, the project will provide different art (and craft) activity ideas each week, with step-by-step instructions and examples. There will also be ideas of songs or music to listen to and ways to connect with birds in nature, to add another layer to the project and highlight how art, music and nature are all important. The project will be informal and flexible, and is open to anyone in any circumstances who feels that art might boost their wellbeing https://medley.live/february-project/

Look And See

Remembering the famous carol ‘The holly and the ivy’ got me thinking about the importance of plants at all times: and how trying to see and notice might become a practicable, everyday way to boost wellbeing.

In many woods (the setting for the carol), the holly and the ivy would stand out as the only plants to bear leaves in midwinter. So they embody plants’ power to enrich lives in myriad different ways, if only we pause to see. ‘Deck the halls’ is another carol highlighting the part plants play in celebrations, with holly’s glossy (if sharp!) leaves and red berries traditionally used to brighten and decorate homes. The carol ‘O Christmas tree’ demonstrates conifer evergreen trees’ importance in winter too, inside and out.

Thinking how plants contribute to the ways we celebrate, then, I wanted to explore how nature might be experienced at different levels, all the time.

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More and more, I hear and see that people who might find connecting with nature (or music or art) helpful for their wellbeing, are too busy or too ill to focus on this. Their focus has to be getting through each and every day. Maybe they care for someone with an illness like dementia, or maybe they themselves live with the impact of stroke or disabilities. There are 1001 other reasons as well. So fleeting encounters with nature could be their only opportunity. Just noticing a plant or tree could create a different moment in their day, a moment away from everyday needs, tasks or struggles.

Moments like these connect us with nature’s cycle of growth and can create a different perspective. In a year like 2020 when so much has been turned on its head, plants have simply gone on growing.

Committing to attend a regular outdoor wellbeing group or to walk or garden might be out of the question for many people, either because of unpredictable health, the need to care for someone, work, or mobility or transport issues to name but a few. So instead, they could try to see and notice, to absorb what they come across in the everyday. Even in many cities, street trees or other plants could become a link to nature, seen through a window if it is impossible to go outside. Or you could look at images of plants.

Looking and seeing really are different, and I don’t always see when I look. As someone who walks a lot, I do try to see and notice. But sometimes I’m too busy thinking, or I have my head down against the wind, and I’m not open to what I see. Yesterday it was wet and windy on my walk, but I looked at the trees and thought how desolate they would look at this time of year without the ivy growing along their trunks. And then I saw the first, very small, early catkins on a hazel bush – a sign of spring.

You may have come across “exercise snacking”. No, not refuelling on pizza during a run! The idea is to try quick, simple exercises like leg stretches that you can fit in to a busy lifestyle or to help gradually recover from illness or injury. Tring to build simple, everyday connections with nature into your life could mirror this. It might seem obvious, but the obvious can be overlooked. It can be the simple that can make the most difference. Consciously being aware of what you look at could become instinctive, opening up a window on nature, clearing your mind for a moment and boosting wellbeing. Look and see.

It would be great if you could share any response you might have on Medley’s new Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002

Shared Or Unique?

Music has great power as a unifying force. Songs and music create a shared vocabulary to draw on as they become a common experience. But while music builds community, its impact on us is also highly personal: I might respond to a song very differently to you. These two distinct impacts music has on us could help us understand its contribution to wellbeing.

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Onbviously we all respond to music in different ways, playing or listening. A song might trigger a link or a memory in my mind which you will never know. Lyrics might strike you more than me. I know I feel I absorb music more fully when I listen alone. But then again, hearing music together with others adds a different mood, as the focus moves from the music itself to the experience of community.

Sharing music enables connection as it forges a common identity. Sometimes we hear or perform a piece of music for the first time together as a group. Or we might come across a once familiar song again with others. Even a song title can create a shared point of reference. Many songs in particular have a lasting power to connect. Film scores add a further layer of shared memory as people see scenes from the film again in their mind’s eye.

Exploring music across the generations can expand musical experiences as well. Music’s role in connecting people of different ages is seen in initiatives run in response to Covid-19 to ease the loneliness endured by so many older people at the moment. Forced to suspend its usual care home visiting, the charity YOPEY has instead turned to inspiring and supporting young people to reach out in new ways, and one s through music and song. On https://www.facebook.com/YoungEntertainElderly, YOPEY creates Virtual Variety Shows for older people in care homes to enjoy. Another example is IMM (Intergenerational Music Making)’s partnership with Care England on Together With Music, linking schools and care homes this winter to choose songs to sing to each other online (https://www.togetherwithmusic.org.uk)

So sharing music is a powerful way to draw people together, which has so many benefits in itself. But as we all respond to music in a unique way, with a unique perspective, it is also important that we connect to music personally, experiencing the songs or music which most uplift us – and only us. This even shapes music’s impact on our physical wellbeing, as seen in the Sync Project’s 2017 study Body In Tune:Music and the Immune System. One benefit it found was that listening to music during surgery reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Levels fell particularly in patients who were allowed to choose what music they heard.

One way in which music’s impact is very specific is through different styles or traditions. Some people enjoy music as diverse as dance, classical, pop and folk. I know I do. Others only respond to one style or another. I hope another time to explore how music’s impact on wellbeing differes by genre. Is classival music more calming? Is pop most likely to boost mood? Do even some instruments have more impact than others? And knowing just how every person responds to music in a unique way, is it truly possible to attribute any specific impact to an entire musical style?

Maybe music is most powerful for you when played or heard alone, or maybe you think sharing music is more beneficial. It would be great if you could share any response you might have on Medley’s new Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002

Through New Eyes

When I think about art and autism, all kinds of questions come to mu mind. I wonder how art might alter the way people who have autism see and experience the world, or how autism might alter the way they make art. I wonder how taking part in art or craft might help people open up or express themselves if they usually struggle with this. I wonder how creativity might make people feel more spontaneous and flexible.

And knowing that many people who have autism need order in their lives, I wonder how this might conflict with art and craft, which can be messy. Is the actual messiness liberating, or might it limit people with autism wanting to be creative? Are there particular art media or styles which might be more helpful than others?

So many questions: and there are no easy or obvious answers. Experiences will differ enormously.

Transitions 1 (Acrylics on canvas) copyright Mahlia Amatina 2020

I recently came across the work of abstract artist Mahlia Amatina (www.mahliaamatina.com) whose painting Transitions 1 (Acrylic) you see here. Mahlia’s work strikes me as vivid, experimental, open and thoughtful. Since she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism) five years ago, she has woven her experiences into her art. Her latest exhibition, Life On A Spectrum, focuses on living with autism. It has moved online because of Covid-19, and is absorbing and powerful to explore. Around The World In 80 Washing Lines was the intriguing title of her previous, 2018 exhibition which shared “sensory-immersive” artwork.

Mahlia works in a range of different media, from oil sticks and acrylic paint to ink, and uses different surfaces, from paper to canvas. And her art is not limited to 2D either. She has built on her abstract style to use other art forms like performance art and videography, which feature in Life On A Spectrum.

As autism may alter the way people see, hear and experience life, all the senses come into play: so a creative response to autism can have a powerful impact if it is multi-sensory as well.

Mahlia Amatina’s work seems to absorb her own experience in order to reach out to others and build community. In her own words about her Life On A Spectrum exhibition, she aims to “capture the imagination of people from all backgrounds to learn about and celebrate neurodiversity”. So I feel that Mahlia’s work demonstrates how art can become a language, how it can create awareness, empathy and solidarity, how it can unite and how it can create insights into how we experience the world we all share.

One important way to do that is to enable people to get involved themselves, to contribute and to respond. The Life On A Spectrum exhibition was developed to be highly interactive, with viewers’ reactions to art and to autism going on to form part of the exhibition itself.

In a way, all art allows us to experience the world through someone else’s eyes, ears, hands or mind. When that someone has autism, maybe this adds another layer to the experience.

I will go on thinking over my questions, and thinking of new ones (about autism and creativity, but also about how all different experiences of life might shape or inspire art). You might have answers or experiences you could share on Medley’s new Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Exploring and asking questions could help us understand art’s diverse impacts on each and every one of us.

Talking Of Trees

Planting a tree is an investment in the future, an act of hope. It also recognizes trees’ enormous impacts, not only on the natural environment and on ecosystems but on wellbeing. Of all features of the natural world, trees have maybe the most widely proven impact on our wellbeing: easing fear, anxiety and depression, connecting us to our environment and even quickening recovery from surgery. National Tree Week, which this year runs from 28 November to 6 December, is an opportunity to explore the nature of that impact.

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While I might think of a tree’s main impact as visual, we do experience trees on different levels across all five senses, which is known to be important for wellbeing. Trees add sound to a landscape as they rustle, sigh or whisper in the wind. They might have a distinctive scent, as lime trees can do. Different species of trees’ bark and leaves feel different to the touch, and some trees have edible fruits (although only eat where they are known to be edible). A sensory nature experience like this on different levels is more likely to boost wellbeing and mood and to create stimulus. It enables people with sight or hearing loss or other, multiple disabilities to connect with nature in other ways. Multi-sensory experience of the natural world is also known to help young people with SEN (special educational needs), creating stimuli and a feeling of space and freedom.

Trees represent stability, which many people find reassuring in an unsettled world. When life is turned on its head, trees represent durability and continuity, so that people may invest trees they know with significance and hope. High levels of opposition to tree felling in many places demonstrates just how involved people come to feel with local landscapes, as also the large-scale campaign which forced the UK Government to reconsider its plan to sell off the country’s woods and forests a few years ago. Maybe because trees seem so solid, rooted and grounded, a threat to their future strikes us all the more as a threat to our own.

National Tree Week began in 1975, at a time when many elm trees were threatened by disease. It has run every year since then, and obviously will be different this year, with far fewer of the tree-planting events which would usually be held. But The Tree Council will hold other events online, and it’s great that these will highlight how trees inspire art, music and creativity. It is this kind of focus on nature and the arts working together that is particularly important to Medley.

One example I’ve recently come across is Stephen Taylor’s book “Oak”, which reproduces 50 paintings he worked on over three years following bereavements and a difficult time in his life. Stephen focused on painting one particular scene multiple times, sometimes just the oak tree itself in close up, sometimes depicting the wider setting as well. In diverse styles, the paintings look at colour, light, growth patterns, bird life around the tree and pollarded branches. His paintings embody the restorative power of creativity in response to nature.

Not only do trees inspire creativity, they provide some of its raw materials. Much art equipment is made from wood (like easels, brush handles and charcoal), and so are many musical instruments, from violins and acoustic guitars to recorders.

Do you find trees boost your mood, calm you or improve your wellbeing in other ways? Why do you think trees have a particular part to play in nature’s impact on wellbeing? Could it be that their longevity and annual cycle of growth embody renewal and new life? It would be great if you could share any response you might have on Medley’s new Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002

Freedom Through Music

How can the ability to improvise music survive the onset of dementia? On one level, Four Notes is the story of one man’s musical imagination, even as he lives with dementia. But on another level it could reveal more about improvisation’s specific scope for music for wellbeing across different situations.

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You are probably familiar with the story behind Four Notes: how improvising on his piano brought an 80 year old man who has dementia to the top of the iTunes and Amazon charts this autumn. Over the years, asking for four notes and improvising on them was a party trick Paul Harvey enjoyed: and it proved to be one he could still pull off. Paul’s son Nick gave his father four notes (F, A, D and B), and his improvisation was played live on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House. The response was so positive that the BBC Philharmonic transcribed and recorded the improvisation, shooting into the charts.

What is immediately striking about the story is that Nick Harvey wanted his father to try improvising because he was struggling to play the compositions he once knew. He would play wrong notes. And as dementia isn’t solely about memory, declining motor skills were also limiting his physical ability to play. So why could improvisation overcome all this?

Was it the freedom and spontaneity which enabled Paul to express himself through those four notes? Liberated from the need to remember or to follow sheet music, maybe he could focus more on sheer sound, mood and imagination. Is improvisation more a question of intuition, a more instinctive way of playing? Maybe it is more connected to emotional memory, known to be a strength for people with dementia. Or maybe there’s a link to attention span and powers of concentration, so that brief spells of improvisation are more viable than sustained playing of a composition.

This could be mirrored by other experiences of people who have dementia. Many people living with these diseases respond to nature, in part because seeing a bird or even a tree is immediate and can also be fleeting or transitory. Many people with dementia struggle to follow a narrative, so that films and books make little sense or fail to hold their attention. Maybe here too, brief, random film sequences or writing could engage them more easily.

When you consider the commitment and memory involved when musicians learn a new piece (if they are truly to absorb and then interpret every nuance and shade) then it is no wonder that dementia might limit their ability to retain all this.

Improvisation is also important because it is far more personal than playing someone else’s composition. For people with dementia, who may be losing spoken or written language, as for people with trauma or other mental health issues, improvisation can create a new way to express mood, emotion or thought. Instead of interpreting another person’s ideas, improvisation allows the performer their own voice. And it may be used by people with no musical experience to enable them to contribute. Paul’s story is different here as he is a trained musician: one for whom improvisation is re-opening doors which dementia might have closed.

As Paddy O’Connell, presenter of Broadcasting House, reflected on Paul’s story in his Radio Times column, “It shines a light on the mysteries of memory and the language of music.” Four Notes highlights dementia’s diverse impacts on musical memory. Even as dementia progresses, many people do remember specific songs or pieces of music, and musical memory can prove more lasting than facial recognition. So there’s space for familiar songs and compositions, but there’s space for experimenting with improvisation as well. Music becomes freedom.

To share any responses or thoughts, it would be great if you could post on Medley’s new Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002

Still There

As nature falls dormant once again, its power to boost wellbeing might seem less obvious.

Weather can have a strong impact on mood. At this time of year in particular, nature itself can fuel depression, as nights draw in and growth slows or halts. And maybe never more so than this year, when autumn and lockdown have struck at once.

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While many people feel they have reconnected with nature this year, others have lost the feww opportunities they have to spend time planting or growing in particular. Many community and therapeutic gardens have not opened for months, particularly in areas of the country which have faced long periods of tighter restrictions. For some sites, it is too difficult to ensure distancing, or most of the people who usually attend have needed to shield.Other therapeutic and community gardening initiatives have met when and where possible. Now winter looms, and gardens’ productivity (so important an element in their impact on wellbeing) has slowed. While this is a familiar, annual lament for all who depend on time spent growing outdoors, this year lockdown and likely continuing restrictions further reduce the possibility of meeting to clean and repair tools, to harvest winter vegetables, to plant late bulbs or to plan next spring’s planting.

Coronavirus has thrown us all back on our own resources by limiting opportunities to draw on community life. Some of us still have the freedom to connect with nature on our own, even though the ways we do that have to adjust for winter. You have to consciously look for new sights at this time of year – maybe for tree silhouettes, now that trees’ different shapes become far more obvious bare of leaves, or for colourful dogwood stems, or for a striking sunset on even the most overcast day.

But for some people, it is only through community or therapeutic gardening that they ever spend time in nature, so that new ways will be needed to connect with nature in different circumstances. That’s why Medley’s Creative Ideas, as one example, try to feature a range of ways to engage with nature, so that people might find one idea they could use even if they are unable to get outside, unable to garden or live in a very urban area. If getting out amidst nature is impossible, then even one of the songs or art & craft ideas might conjure thoughts and memories of the outdoors. Https://medley.live/creative-ideas/

So many people have thought up imaginative ways to go on connecting with nature throughout months of pandemic. These have involved growing and wildlife-watching, but also music, art, movement and dance. Someone on Medley’s new Facebook group recently shared a link to a feature about outdoor sketching sessions in Epping Forest, run by Boggy Doodles. Held earlier in the autumn (before the second lockdown began in England), the sessions looked like a great way to spend time creatively in nature, drawing autumn leaves and trees in charcoal or watercolour pencils. Hopefully others will be held once lockdown is eased.

Nature might seem to be sinking into hibernation, but by drawing or painting (alone or with others), by digging and preparing soil, by simply looking at winter seedheads or a houseplant, or watching a bare tree, it is still possible to feel part of nature’s endless cycle of life in some way.

Do you have responses or thoughts you could share with others? Are you involved with a community or therapeutic garden or other nature group which is unable to meet? Have you found new ways to connect with the natural world? It would be great if you could contribute to Medley’s new Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002

Painting Your Mind

A paintbrush might seem an unlikely tool to ease mental health issues like anxiety. But art can do this in different ways. It can help by focusing the mind on a creative task, so that you concentrate more fully on what you are doing and the dear loosens its hold, for a time. It can help by boosting confidence and a feeling of capability, so that the fear shrinks a little. Obviously a lot depends on the cause of the anxiety, and sometimes anxiety can become so extreme that it could seem impossible to concentrate at all.

Fear and anxiety are familiar feelings for many people, and this year has seen anxiety levels spiral. For some, coronavirus has accentuated existing anxieties, for others this is a new experience.

A feeling of isolation or loneliness is integral to many (although not all) mental health issues, and this is somewhere where art can help. By painting or drawing in a group, people can feel part of a team or community. But even if you paint or draw alone, creativity can ease loneliness as it expresses emotions or ideas which might be suppressed. Translating those thoughts onto paper or into colour is a form of sharing.

Photo by Emily Hopper on Pexels.com

Just as art can help people express themselves on personal issues, it can also enable them to explore wider issues (local, national or global). Covid-19 has highlighted how world events can suddenly overturn our lives. But it is far from alone. Now that more and more people recognize that a climate emergency is underway, this can add to depression or anxiety about what the future holds, so that it is likely to have a growing impact on mental health.

In some ways, there might seem little to connect art with climate change, but art is becoming an important way for people to respond and to express different reactions. One example is the work of Climate Museum UK, a Community Interest Company which uses objects and art to enable people to express themselves on climate issues in imaginative ways.

People might feel helpless in the face of so enormous and complex an issue as climate change. Art can allow you to visualize a different future, to imagine alternatives, and to empathize with other people or creatures. Climate Museum UK is planning a new project called The Wild Museum, with the team dressing as animal curators to help young people explore climate change’s impacts on other species.

For 2020, The Big Draw has even renamed itself The Big Green Draw, with its theme A Climate Of Change, focusing on people’s relationship with nature, the living environment through art classes, workshops and other (mainly virtual) events.

I recently took part in an art challenge to paint or draw “signposts and barriers” – what helps us to find ways to live more sustainable, and what holds us back. Just thinking what I might paint focused my mind on what the barriers really are, so that I could represent them simply, and I found this helpful.

All this recognizes that far from being separate from life, secondary or trivial, art instead grows out of life- and can contribute to change and wellbeing, either for any one person, or for communities. Do you agree? How have you found art helpful? It would be great if you could share any thoughts on Medley’s new Facebook group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002

A Song To Sing

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.

copyright The Smiling Sessions: Our Team of Professional Musicians

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.