Playing the soundtrack to our lives
PUBLISHED: 20:06 03 October 2018 | UPDATED: 09:40 04 October 2018
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The BBC has launched its Music Memories website which can trigger precious memories for people suffering from dementia. Lynne Mortimer explores the website and discusses the power of music.
The soundtrack to our lives begins with lullabies and nursery rhymes and then children’s songs, Christmas carols and hymns. Teenagers concoct their own playlists from music downloads, checking in to music radio from time to time. At some point they will discover there is also classical music and pieces of Mozart, Wagner, Elgar and Beethoven will enter their world.
Music festivals will introduce them to new artists and friends will say: “Listen to this” and ply you with their favourite songs.
At some point, the soundtrack will cease to expand exponentially, becoming a mix of new and old that will stay with you forever.
Memories are prompted by a few bars of music − the song you danced to at your wedding, the ones you chose on the jukebox, the ones that make you cry... or cringe. Then you sing the songs you love to your own children, go and see tribute bands and, every so often, dig out the old vinyl records and listen to the scratch on John Lennon’s Imagine... and remember the brilliant party when it first got damaged (by a pie-eyed friend brandishing a corkscrew).
While dementia can erase treasured memories, the restorative qualities of music have been proved to help. A new BBC website, https://musicmemories.bbcrewind.co.uk has been created to bring people music that can prompt memories.
Singer, vocal coach, music arranger and choir director Yula Andrews needs no convincing that music is a potent force for good.
As well as running Pop Chorus groups around Suffolk (with a total of over 200 singers) and a weekly group at Otley Singing (in unison) for Health and Happiness, she also has a monthly session, supported by Age UK, for people with dementia.
It is relevant and fun for the singers and has a song list that ranges from traditional songs, to Gershwin, and Sinatra, The Carpenters, The Beatles and The Monkees.
“We get a lot of people in their 50s and 60s whose music memories are from the Sixties and Seventies,” says Yula adding that these are people for whom the music of the war years is not so relevant. “There’s often a misconception that everyone wants to sing Vera Lynn,” she smiles. Her singers are more into Abba, and I’m a Believer. “It makes a difference to people’s lives,” she says.
Yula also makes little changes here and there that her singers find entertaining... such as the famous line in The Girl from Ipanema: “Each one she passes goes aah” which gets translated into: “Each pirate she passes goes arrrr!”
At Age UK in Suffolk Vicky Hutchinson, dementia community development officer, says: “I always see a change in someone when they come along to music sessions. Music seems to reach parts of the brain that normal conversation doesn’t − it’s a feelgood factor.”
Vicky says that while some people with dementia have difficulty finding words when they speak, are fluent with lyrics they know when they sing.
It is a sort of magic.
But is there a lasting effect? Vicky says: “People tell us that the person is very much more uplifted. It helps improve their mood.”
American website Alzheimers.net lists five reasons why they believe music boosts brain activity:
1. Music can evoke emotion in even the most advanced of Alzheimer’s patients. Neurologist Oliver Sacks says that, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”
2. Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients, according to a study conducted into how music affects those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Thus, music music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.
3. Music can bring emotional and physical closeness. Through music, as long as they are ambulatory, they can often dance. Dancing can lead to hugs, kisses and touching which brings security and memories.
4. Singing is engaging. It stimulates much of the brain and thus people exercise more mind power than usual
5. Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions.
The BBC website offers a choice of classical music (by composer), popular music (by decade) and theme tunes (listed by title of show). You can select, eg. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, David Bowie’s Life on Mars or the theme tune to The Avengers. It is an easy-to-navigate site with access to 1,800 pieces.
And now you must excuse me, I’m very keen to be reminded of the Dr Kildare theme.
• Suffolk-based SoundCure (www.soundcure.org.uk) stages entertainment events which raise funds to support people living with dementia, people whose lives can be enhanced through the use of music.
• Details of groups across East Anglia can be found at www.ageuk.org.uk/suffolk/activities-and-events
In Norfolk at www.ageuk.org.uk/norfolk/activities-and-events/
And in Essex www.ageuk.org.uk/essex/activities-and-events/
The new BBC website is at https://musicmemories.bbcrewind.co.uk