Music and Memory

Saramai Leech in conversation with Grainne Hope (Professional cellist, founder of Kids Classics, Atlantic fellow of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin.)

You can actually see somebody light up’ 

More and more we are seeing videos online showing incredible moments where music connects with a person living with dementia. Through these connections we witness their personalities shining through. Recent examples include Paul Harvey’s beautiful Four Notes or the video of the late Marta C Gonzalez listening to Swan Lake. She was a ballerina with the New York Ballet in former years. Not only does the music in these scenarios give the person agency but it can allow others to glimpse the real person and creates new positive memories for family, friends and carers alike.

Anecdotally it has become widely accepted that music connects where other forms of communication fail. This is especially true for a person living with dementia. Similarly scientists and researchers have been carrying out studies in an effort to understand from a medical and scientific standpoint what many carers and family members are witnessing. 

One such study was carried out by Carsten Finke and a team at Berlin Charité hospital in 2012. They published a paper called ‘Preservation of musical memory in an amnesic professional cellist’. The focus of their study was a cellist who had developed amnesia. Remarkably he could play much like any other musician who had no memory problems. To quote from the publication, he, ‘could not remember the name of any German river or chancellor. He was neither able to report biographical details from childhood, youth or adulthood, nor other personal or professional events... had no memory of relatives and friends, except for his brother and his full-time caregiver. He was unable to recall or recognize lyrics of well-known folk and children’s songs... could not recall any famous cellist and remembered the name of only one composer (Beethoven). However, he was still able to sight-read and to play the cello.’ Their conclusion was that the learning and retention of music depends on brain networks other than those we use for recalling general knowledge or personal life events. 

To shed some more light on the area of music and memory I had a chat with Arts and Health expert Gráinne Hope. She is a professional cellist, the founder of Kids Classics and an Atlantic fellow of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin. Through her work with Kids Classics she has been delivering music to healthcare settings for over ten years.

I asked Gráinne about her perspective on music and memory, coming from both an academic background combined with her considerable experience as a professional hospital musician delivering music in healthcare settings:


‘Music is so connected with emotions and emotions is memory. What I am learning while at the institute is that so many parts of our brain holds music, different things associated with music. I think that is what has the power with connecting memory to music because it is also connected to emotion. It’s perhaps also connected to a visual experience. So when music comes into this equation, no matter what part of the brain that might be effected through atrophy or shrinkage with dementia or Alzheimer’s, because music is held in so many different ways … that it proves to be one of the lasting engagements that will have impact when somebody shares music with somebody. I’ve often just played two notes of a song and somebody in a room, it’s obviously connected with them through a memory or an's amazing to see you can actually see someone light up’

I also asked Gráinne to share some of her insights around Arts and Health:

‘The power of music to do something that I haven’t found anything else does. It really breaks down barriers. It really connects people. You start conversations and you never know where they go. I’ve learned fascinating stories about life and people’s lives. It’s like a window. You join somebody in their memory. We often talk about, with dementia, their long term memory is perhaps there deep down but their everyday memory, they’re not able to retain it. So when something is brought up with somebody, you get to travel back with their memory and live it with them in the present’ 

‘The value of somebody's life..., wherever they should be, whether that’s in a hospital or a nursing home or a community, is so valuable. They still have a story to tell. They are still living, and for me it [music in a healthcare setting] enhances that journey and that life for a person wherever they are. ..If you think of the staff in that workplace, it gives them something too. It can be a very stressful workplace, ... even as a carer, so everybody joins in in that musical sharing, in that story that goes with that and in making new memories. So that's a new conversation because obviously you know there's a lot of routines in certain settings like nursing homes and you know they're there for a reason but … also it's a new conversation piece and and I suppose more than anything it's the quality of life for somebody. It shouldn't just be you know routine, sitting in a chair, meals at this time… Everyone's life to me is as valuable from the day they came into the world as to the day they leave the world and it's I know I've said it but it is a privilege to join somebody on that. It's like the the door is open to their life and they're sharing it with you and it's an absolute privilege’

We also talked about some practical tips for family members and carers from Gráinne including connecting with your community and other carers in any way that you can or perhaps creating a playlist for and with your loved one. 

‘Stay connected with communities, it's very hard currently during these covid times but that's not to say it's not impossible and sometimes if you reach out a hand to somebody they'll help you connect, say virtually if you're not sure how to get online. I know there’s a lot of initiatives like coffee mornings with Alzheimer’s Ireland, National Concert Hall have Tea Dance Tunes. They have moved their offer online to try stay connected with caregivers and those living with dementia specifically.’

[If you can’t get online]  ‘find out what music they were interested in...what really connected with the person you are with...There’s this thing called playlists. It’s an initiative...The value of it is that when conversation can be limited or speech may be putting music on and a list of their tunes and listening with them, [it] sparks a new conversation, something new to talk about that day, something different. And perhaps with that memories  come up, that the person you know, they perhaps share together or did not know around this person. So it’s so valuable to live in the present with this person even if it feels like you may be losing a little bit of them every day to know that the person is still there with you. It’s just you have to find that connection deep down so that’s the magic of the playlists’

Many thanks to Gráinne Hope for her time and valuable insight.

Here are some links to help get you started with creating a playlist for your loved one or yourself.

Be there for an older loved one, from anywhere.