Music and dementia

Naomi Atherton
Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Naomi Atherton, Principal Horn of the Manchester Camerata, on how music gives people living with dementia a voice and a sense of community in the moment

My Dad lived with dementia and loved his music. In his later stages he believed that he was in an airport lounge. He would sit by the door with his coat and hat on and a suitcase at his side, waiting for his flight to be called. A CD player playing his favourite music would bring him back into the room and help clear his confused mind so that he could relax for a while. This was what made me want to get involved in Manchester Camerata’s Music in Mind Programme.

One of the things I’ve always loved about being a classical musician is seeing how music can affect the mood of the music makers and the listeners. Its sociable, fun and makes you feel part of something and makes you feel something. All this without using the spoken word. Our Music in Mind programme works in with this. It gives people living with dementia a voice and a sense of community in the moment. It focuses on what you can do rather than what you can’t.

‘It’s possible to create a place where everyone can feel that they have a voice that is heard, irrespective of whether they have the ability to speak or not’


All our participants have had different life experiences and have such varied needs. They respond to music in their own individual way. By using improvisation with instruments and the voice, and by making sure that the music-making is participant lead rather than musician lead, it’s possible to create a place where everyone can feel that they have a voice that is heard, irrespective of whether they have the ability to speak or not. 

Research carried out in parallel with the Music in Mind programme shows that by week four of the project, there is an increase in 90 per cent of the participants’ social, communication and musical skills, and in their mood. There is also a decrease in their levels of anxiety, frustration, repetitive behaviour and agitation.

Music speaks to everyone. I’ve taken part in workshops in care homes in Japan where we couldn’t chat because of the language barrier. The only means of communication was with music. On one occasion in Japan we were working with a group of ladies, all 90-plus, who met up in a day care centre. We were told that they would get tired after about 20 minutes, so to make sure we stopped for a tea break. Well, there was no stopping them. An hour and a half later …

And it’s not just people who are living with dementia who benefit from the sessions: care home staff have told us that some residents has been much less agitated for a while after the sessions, which takes the pressure off them, enabling them to get on with the many other jobs they need to do. They’ve then maybe decided to sing or play music to the resident whilst helping them to perform everyday tasks, like getting dressed, as it helps make the process easier.

One of my favourite projects was when the participants came with their partners. Seeing everyone totally immersed in music-making, supporting each other musically and socially, able to communicate, irrespective of the manner in which their brains worked, was a wonderful thing. For that moment in time the world seemed better, and I think that’s what I love about this work and that it’s the most rewarding thing I do.


Find out more about Manchester Camerata’s Music in Mind Programme at manchestercamerata.co.uk/community/music-in-mind/

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