Music Therapy and Dementia

Music therapy and dementia

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Wed, 21/9/2016

Richard Sanderson has worked as a music therapist with people with dementia since 2005.


An improvisational attitude underpins all my work. When working with people with advanced dementia I improvise music incorporating residents’ gestures and vocalisations as an inherent part of the music that we create together. I sometimes begin by using familiar songs to initiate interaction but these are always improvised both to meet and further motivate residents’ responses, such as singing, moving, dancing, swaying, clapping etc.  As a Nordoff Robbins trained music therapist I am focused on listening to exactly how the person presents themselves in music and then use music to ‘meet’ and support them. The music provides a stable and recognisable framework which enables us to sustain a two-way, coherent meaningful communication. It can re-orientate people when they are confused and then keeps them engaged in the moment.

I run an open music group session with 10 -15 residents in the Care Home’s lounge. In this group the music enlivens and focuses the residents and enables social interaction. This in turn can reduce agitation and anxiety and create an atmosphere of well-being. For some clients whose dementia affected their ability to have a conversation, participating in such a group provides the only enjoyable community experience.

How does music benefit people with dementia?

There is a growing awareness of the benefits that the therapeutic use of music has to offer people with dementia. In its National Dementia Strategy the Government has given ‘official’ recognition to this use when it stated, ‘…the provision of therapeutic activities within care homes, such as…music therapy…may have a useful role in enabling a good-quality social environment and the possibility for self-expression where the individuality of the residents is respected. (From the Department of Health publication: ‘Living well with dementia: A National Dementia Strategy.’ Chapter 5, paragraph 27)

From my own experience as a Nordoff Robbins music therapist, the therapeutic use of music in dementia care can:

  • Motivate residents to participate in a meaningful activity.
  • Elicit focused and meaningful communication and interaction and thereby reduce frustration, disorientation and anxiety.
  • Enable self expression and meaningful social communication
  • Reconnect people positively with past experiences.
  • Provide an atmosphere of wellbeing and awareness of accomplishment when intellectual activity has become a way to failure and frustration.

Why is this?

Being a musician and a music therapist, I believe that being musical is fundamental to being human. Before the developing infant understands language it is already using the basic elements of music such as pitch, rhythm and phrasing in its babbling interactions with its parents. Its experience of the world is therefore essentially musical. And just as the musical understanding of the world is one of the first skills we learn, the brain often seems to hold on to its ability to understand musical communication long after other skills are lost to dementia.   

For me working as a music therapist with people living with dementia is a real priviledge. It can be emotionally challenging to work with the residents who have experienced loss on so many levels. But it can also be very rewarding to witness how music can overcome their confusion and anxiety and take them to ‘another place’ where they regain orientation, connect with other people and become reconnected to their own past positive emotional experiences. Getting to know the residents in this way and seeing the positive changes when they become involved in music is a continual inspiration to me.

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