The medicine of music

Philip Barron finds out how UK charities are using music to help the wellbeing of hospital patients

Most of us know instinctively that ‘music has charms’ (a saying that goes back to the 17th century), but today its therapeutic properties are being developed as never before.

The UK charity Music in Hospitals, for instance, provides around 5,000 live performances in healthcare settings each year, while the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain project has over 100 groups around the country, using singing to stimulate the memories of people with dementia.

And you don’t have to be ill to benefit from being involved with musical activities. In 2006, the pianist Tessa Marchington founded an agency called Music in Offices, which sends musicians into business premises to form choirs and give music lessons to individual workers around office hours. A number of major business firms have found that doing this works wonders for team-building and creates an oasis of calm in the working day.

“Music in Offices has been one of the most interesting and impactful morale boosters I have experienced in 20 years with the firm,” says Ben Resch, a senior executive with the international accountancy firm Deloitte.

Healthcare settings

When Music in Hospitals (MiH) began in 1948, audiences included up to 700 patients at a time. Now things are different – the performances are more intimate and designed to reach each member of an audience. Small groups of musicians encourage people to contribute and express themselves through the music.

“Everyone has a basic need to be occupied,” says MiH Chief Executive Diana Greenman. “Our concerts are an ideal opportunity to help people feel better about themselves and become more alert and interested in what is going on around them. Visiting a variety of premises, our musicians walk around the wards, dayrooms or lounges. They may stand at bedsides, making eye contact, holding hands or perhaps describing instruments. The aim is to bring the person out of the patient.

The aim is to bring the person out of the patient

Diana adds that in psychiatric settings, staff report clients becoming more calm, attentive and insightful (in therapy) after a concert. “Sometimes the need for medication and other inpatient procedures is reduced,” she says.

MiH currently charges around £120 for a concert lasting up to 75 minutes (which is only half the actual cost to the charity).

Helping people with dementia

Another example of the value of music is the Singing for the Brain (SftB) scheme pioneered a decade ago by Chreanne Montgomery-Smith (a member of the West Berkshire branch of the Alzheimer’s Society) and Dr Nicholas Bannan, then at the University of Reading. There are now over 100 SftB groups in England and Wales, helping people with dementia, and their relatives, through music.

One of the early groups was created in Bristol and meets weekly. Gillian Kirk is a singing facilitator there, supported by a team of volunteers. She explains that each week she tries to include vocal exercises and a wide range of familiar songs: “We often tie in our programme with topical events like Valentine’s Day, Easter or Christmas. We sometimes go as the mood takes us, encouraging requests and suggestions. Keyboard accompaniment is provided; also a range of percussion instruments that our members can use to encourage rhythmic expression.”

An important aspect of the group, says Gillian, is that it is a very accepting and safe environment where people with dementia can socialise and feel supported, free from embarrassment because everyone understands the issues associated with memory loss. Strong friendships develop within the group.

“Both those with dementia and their carers seem to find, through the singing, an emotional release and a sense of bonding with others,” says Gillian. “There’s a sense of achievement from mastering musical skills, finding that they can remember favourite songs, sing in simple harmonies and manage part-songs. It’s about what they can still do when some aspects of their lives are becoming more difficult.”