This post is by Yingmin Khoo, as featured on her blog here. Yingmin wrote an article on the pitfalls of the music industry in Mindful Melody Issue 3 - we're really big fans of her writing and the interesting topics she covers, which often include music and mental health. Be sure to support her and go give her blog a follow at the link below!
A few weeks ago, as I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, I came across a video of a woman being played a piece from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She starts to move her arms to the beautiful melody and you can see how she gets lost in the music. The woman in the video, Marta González Saldaña, had Alzheimer’s and was living out the rest of her life in a residential facility in Spain when this video was filmed in 2019. Although very little is known about her, some have dug deeper and it is suggested that she was a former prima ballerina with the New York Ballet in the 60s, which explains her response upon hearing Tchaikovsky. Watching the video was a moving experience and really exemplified the ability of music to help us connect with those living with severe dementia. And Marta’s story is not an exception. There is an increasing number of stories which really shows the way music can be used to trigger the memories of those diagnosed with dementia.
80-year-old Paul Harvey went viral last year when his son posted a video of him improvising a piece from just four notes on Twitter. Having caught the attention of the BBC Philharmonic, Paul’s Tune became a hit and entered the UK Singles Chart with all the proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Society and Music for Dementia. In his interview with the BBC, it is clear that music plays a hugely important role in Harvey’s life and in the way he deals with losing his memories: “My memory’s fine when I’m playing the piano, I can remember all the things I’ve done. When I am looking at television or other things around where I live, then I start forgetting things. And if something is not in the right place, then I panic a bit. But if I’m a bit stressed, I will go and play the piano, and I’ll be alright then”.
"It is no secret that music can help relieve the symptoms of anxiety, depression and dementia but how exactly does music help?"
Have you ever heard a song come on the radio that you’ve not heard for months but still leaves you feeling overwhelmed with such a strong emotional feeling? We all have *that* song which evokes feelings of heartbreak (The Wisp Sings by Winter Aid ), summer (Are You Bored Yet by Wallows ft Clairo), walking-around-Oxford-at-night (D(Half Moon) by DEAN), panicking-as-I-run-for-the-tube (Runaway (U & I) by Galantis). In fact, if I scroll down my Spotify liked songs, just about every song is attached to a certain memory, person, feeling or moment in time. As Adam Ockleford, a Professor of Music at Roehampton University, said “Music is central to the notion of what it is to be human.”
This is because listening to music usually evokes strong emotional feelings and in turn these emotions enhances our brain processes and creates these memories that are imbedded in our brains and when these memories are awakened, this triggers the same emotions that created the memories in the first place. These particular memories are often more memorable because, unlike our other senses, the music we hear often form part of a shared experience. Listening to the same music becomes part of our experience at clubs, concerts, gigs, festivals, parties and even in the way we share music we love with othres. As Cretien van Campen, author of The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories explains: “Smell differs in that it is a personal memory, whereas there is something very social in our experience of music.”
This creates somewhat of a symbiotic relationship between memory and music whereby music cannot exist without memory and music helps create memories. Without memory, music is nothing more than a series of vibrations in the air. From this, our brain “picks out notes, rhythms, timbres, patterns and structures,” and all of this “relies on memory.” (Wellcome Collection) This is why in western culture we often associate songs in a minor-key with feelings of sadness and those in a major-key with happiness. Although there is nothing inherently ‘sad’ about notes on a minor scale, we rely on our experiences with the music we have heard before and make assumptions accordingly.
The relationship between music and memory has long been recognised and utilised as a way to remember things. In Rubin’s Memory in Oral Traditions, he discusses how it is believed that many epic stories, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, were originally orally-dictated texts and were passed down through generations as a song or poem to be performed. This is known as oral tradition and has been widely used in history across the world.
Music helps with this because it provides some sort of rhythm, melody and structure that helps us remember more easily. As Professor Helen Odell-Miller, the director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University, explains: “The start of a song triggers the memory of the whole song, which is owing to the natural pre-language flow of expression. Songs involve patterns and we learn to communicate through patterns and these patterns become embedded in our ‘musical brain.” As a result, music can be used to relieve depression, anxiety and symptoms associated with dementia.
A single-blind, randomised and controlled study was carried out by Särkämö et al, an associate professor specialising in neuropsychology at the University of Helsinki, and the results showed that listening to their favourite music daily helped improve the verbal memory and attention of stroke patients. Additionally, the study also found that this caused significant improvement in their mood and they were less depressed and confused in comparison to the control group. The music acted as a trigger for vivid memories that they might have forgotten and this in turn can relieve the symptoms of depression by reminding them of happier times or as Campen suggests, this “can help them remember the more complex experiences,” and whilst these may not always be positive, “they may be more rounded.”
This study and its results along with other similar experiments are extremely hopeful and is already being put into action to help make a difference. Music & Memory is just one example of a non-profit organisation in the US which has made use of the power of music to help those suffering from some form of cognitive loss and give them some way to communicate and engage with the world again. Similarly, Asociación Música para Despertar is a Spanish organization that uses music therapy to help improve the mood and memory of those afflicted by memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
So whilst music may not be a cure, it certainly has the healing power to make a real difference and help reconnect those who have felt disconnected from humanity for so long.
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