Now more than ever, music’s impact on health and wellbeing is spiralling.
Awareness of music’s role in wellbeing has boomed, with a range of studies, experiments and projects revealing diverse impacts. There are research studies into music’s impact on people with forms of dementia, across different stages of these diseases’ progression. Music is used with people on the autistic spectrum, people with mental health issues, people with sight loss, people in rehabilitation for substance misuse, to name but a few. Formal, randomised controlled trials sit alongside informal, small-scale initiatives. There are activities and experiments taking place in hospitals, schools, care homes, youth centres, hospices, youth and community centres. Some focus on improvisation, some on learning to sing or play an instrument, some on participating, others on listening. They prove music to be calming, restorative, empowering and enlivening. They demonstrate its role in reducing distress and agitation. They reveal how music builds communication skills, eases loneliness, reduces pain, improves recovery from surgery, creates relationships and enhances mood.
Specific outcomes depend on participants’ conditions or needs. For autistic children or adults, the focus tends to be on boosting communication, imagination and spontaneity, by connecting the auditory and motor brain functions and by freeing responses. For dementia patients, on the other hand, music enables shared experience and connection when language is lost, as well as enhancing and reawakening memory. Dementia weakens and erodes cognition, but emotional memory (linked to music) may remain. For people with anxiety disorders like elective mutism, music may free and enable expression. Music therapy and other music initiatives may help stroke survivors who have aphasia (speech difficulties caused by strokes or other neurological conditions or injury), as studies have proven. The brain’s auditory cortex covers music as well as language, which is thought to explain this impact. People with aphasia may find singing easier than talking, and some attend aphasia choirs with links to organisations like The Stroke Association. Another, less well understood impact of music on stroke rehabilitation is the way it helps motor movement, control and spontaneity to recover.
Singing in particular also has physical benefits for all participants, helping lung capacity and breathing control. Time and again all these initiatives identify music as a way to communicate without spoken language. By awakening memories, hearing a long forgotten song or piece of music can rouse people whose dementia makes them seem withdrawn. Even those who have lost the ability to talk to other people can still respond to music, as research and everyday experience alike have proved. It is known that people are most likely to remember and respond to music they heard during their teens to mid thirties, the so-called “memory bump” years in a person’s life.
One organization brightening older people’s lives through song and music is The Smiling Sessions, which now runs free online singalongs. https://www.smilingsessions.com/
In no way is music’s impact limited to organised therapy or activities. Technology has opened music to all more than ever before. By creating your own playlist, for example, you have the freedom and independence to turn to music whenever you need or want to do so. Or you may play an instrument yourself, or attend music events unconnected to therapy or wellbeing. Music will not always need to be interpreted. But when people draw on music for themselves, its impact is known only to them and is rarely assessed. People’s everyday experiences become overshadowed. This is one particular role for Medley’s forum: an opportunity to build up a more layered picture of the different ways in which music, art and nature help us on our own. This could also highlight issues to be considered – for example, dementia may alter people’s hearing so that sounds seem louder or quieter than usual, which could obviously impact on their experience of music.