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Health, Sports & Psychology

Music, culture and dementia

Updated Thursday, 29th November 2018

Music can give people with dementia a voice when they find talking difficult or communicate via alternative means. Dr Geraldine Boyle explores this subject.

The report of the Commission on Music and Dementia (2018) highlighted the need to recognise the importance of musical diversity in dementia and that musical preferences vary by culture. However, there has been little research undertaken into music and culture in dementia (Brummel-Smith, 2012). The CMD highlighted that music therapists are trained to work across cultures and to draw on a range of musical styles (2018). Using music might involve identifying appropriate music for key cultural and religious events (e.g. Chinese New Year or the Jewish Hanukkah celebration). Enjoying music in a group is an alternative to conversation (especially when this becomes difficult in dementia) and helps promote interaction and a sense of togetherness (e.g. Hays & Minichiello, 2005).

Culturally-specific music interventions, which link a person’s own life with key historical and cultural events, can bring pleasure to the person and contribute to their emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Our musical memory is distinctive from our other memory systems and can be preserved even when other aspects of memory are affected (Jacobsen et al, 2015). Similarly, as individual music preferences can be preserved in dementia (McDermott et al, 2014), very familiar songs may be remembered when other memories of past lives are forgotten (Jacobsen et al, 2015). Indeed, the famous American singer Glen Campbell (now deceased) was still performing live despite developing Alzheimer’s.

As music is linked to one’s personal identity and life history so using music can help to connect the person with her/his past life and sense of self (McDermott et al, 2014). Using music therapy which reflects the cultural identity of people with dementia may be more effective than music therapy which uses more generic music (Tanaka et al, 2012). Music can improve the mood of a person with dementia and their interest in their surroundings e.g. when living in a care home (ibid). Music for Life is a project (run by Wigmore Hall) which involves musicians working with residents with dementia in care homes to enable them to express themselves by making music – watch the video below to find out more about their work.


This case study about Emma illustrates how music-making helped to improve her depression (Music for Life website, 2018).

Another case study about Angela shows how music therapy, especially playing gospel music to her, improved her social involvement and mood (page 15 of Music for Life report 2016).

Music can also help to build emotional and social bonds with people with dementia and facilitate communication with them (McDermott et al, 2014). Using familiar music can be emotionally meaningful even for people who are in the late stages of dementia (McDermott et al, 2014). Most importantly, music can give people with dementia a voice when they find talking difficult or communicate via alternative means (e.g. via vocalisations such as shouting or their behaviour). The Social Care Institute for Excellence has produced guidance re the importance of music in care homes. As SCIE points out, “even if people with dementia can’t talk, they may be able to sing, whistle, clap or tap their feet” (ibid: page 1). Most importantly, though, making music is fun!


Further reading and references

Bowel and Bamford (for ILC and Utley Foundation) (2018) ‘What would life be? Without a song or a dance what are we?’ Report from Commission on Music and Dementia.

Brummel-Smith, K (2011) Alzheimer's Disease and the Promise of Music and Culture as a Healing Process.

In Benjamin D. Koen (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Medical Ethnomusicology (Ed) Oxford: OUP.

Hays, T., & Minichiello, V. (2005). The contribution of music to quality of life in older people: An Australian qualitative study. Ageing and Society, 25(2), 261–278. doi:10.1017/S0144686_04002946.

Jörn-Henrik Jacobsen, Johannes Stelzer, Thomas Hans Fritz, Gael Chételat, Renaud La Joie, Robert Turner; Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease, Brain, Volume 138, Issue 8, 1 August 2015, Pages 2438–2450.

McDermott et al (2014) The importance of music for people with dementia: the perspectives of people with dementia, family carers, staff and music therapists, Aging & Mental Health,  18, No. 6, 706–716.

Music for Life (2016) Music for Life Programme Report: April 2015 – July 2016. 

SCIE (no date) Arts in care homes. Music and singing in care homes

Tanaka et al, 2012 Music Therapy with Ethnic Music for Dementia Patients, International Journal of Gerontology, Volume 6, Issue 4, Pages 247-257.

Information or support when you or someone else has memory problems or dementia

To find out more about dementia or get information or advice about living with the condition or caring for someone with dementia (with the UK), check out the website of the Alzheimer’s Society:

Alternatively, you can ring their ‘National Dementia Helpline’: 0300 222 11 22.

For information about specialist support for people with dementia provided by Admiral Nurses (available in some parts of the UK), check out the website of Dementia UK:

Alternatively, you can ring their ‘Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline’: 0800 888 6678.

For advice or support if you are caring for someone with dementia, check out the website of Carers UK:

Alternatively, you can ring their carers helpline: 0808 808 7777.

Enjoying music when you or someone else has memory problems or dementia

To learn about the work of the organisation Playlist for Life or how to create a music playlist for yourself or someone else with dementia, check out their website:

Knowing where to access music therapy when you or someone else has memory problems or dementia

To find out if music therapy is available in your area (England only), check out the website of the Nordoff Robbins charity:

Alternatively, if you live in Scotland, check out the following website:

Knowing where to find Music for Life workshops in residential homes or day centres

To find out about interactive music workshops delivered in some residential homes or day centres by Wigmore Hall, check out their website:

Looking for peer engagement or campaigning groups in your area

To find out if there is a peer engagement or campaigning group in your area, check out the website of DEEP, the Dementia Engagement & Empowerment Project:

Finding out about the work of the UK Commission on Dementia and Music

To learn about the findings of the UK independent Commission on Dementia and Music, particularly in relation to the value of music interventions for people with dementia, check out their website:







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