Using music for memories

Posted 19th June 2023

We know that listening to a favourite song makes us feel good, and a certain tune on the radio can trigger specific memories. Music is incredibly evocative, which also makes it such a brilliant tool for those living with dementia. In Milton Keynes, Singing for the Brain sessions have proven so popular that the fortnightly musical meetings – organised by the Alzheimer’s Society – recently celebrated their ninth anniversary. Sammy Jones spoke with Dementia Advisor Chelsea Gadd about the power of music.

Dementia Advisor Chelsea Gadd
Chelsea Gadd – music matters

Chelsea has worked to support people living with dementia for the last eight years; first as a live-in carer and then in a care home.

“When I first became a live-in carer, I supported a lovely lady who was diagnosed with dementia. After living with her and hearing her stories and experiences, I developed a keen enthusiasm to continue supporting people who are affected by dementia, and it’s mostly what I’ve been doing since,” she told Pulse.

When an opening to work for the Alzheimer’s Society presented itself two years ago, she didn’t think twice: “I jumped at the chance!” she said, and her day to day work now includes facilitating the groups the charity offers locally – Singing for the Brain is a small, but significant part of that role, although she won’t take the credit.

“We rely on our wonderful lead singing volunteers, Ruth and Tracey, to lead the singing. All our wonderful volunteers at Singing for the Brain work so hard in helping me run the sessions – I wouldn’t be able to do it without them!”

These events can average two dozen or so people, and it is important they are inclusive: “We have a wide range of ages that attend which is why it’s so important to have a diverse song list at each session.”

So what does a typical session sound like – what’s on the setlist of sorts?

“We sing a range of different songs including material by Neil Sedaka, The Beatles, and Queen. Sometimes our singing leads will set a theme for the sessions such as musicals, or if there’s a particular event near the session then we will centre the theme around that, like Christmas or summer holidays.”

Singing for the Brain session in progress
‘Sometimes our singing leads will set a theme for the sessions such as musicals.’

As we mentioned at the start, music is a special kind of medicine. It is uplifting and all-encompassing, and for people dealing with dementia, it helps to replace isolation with a social side, and can help them recall memories and reminisce. It aides wellbeing, and connects the present with the past.

“Listening to favourite songs can bring back old memories and feelings,” Chelsea agrees, “Many people living with dementia are still able to enjoy music and to sing even when they start to lose their language abilities.

“While the search for a cure continues, we all must work together to support people living with dementia so they can live meaningful lives. Music is a wonderful way to do this.

“Research shows that musical memory is often retained when other memories are lost; music can help people to recall memories due to the nature of preserved memory for song and music in the brain. It brings people together with a common interest where they can share stories about a particular song they enjoy and reminisce about the ‘good old days.’”

If the pandemic left many of us feeling isolated, those feelings were only amplified for people living with dementia. The first time the group was able to get back in the room together post lockdown gave Chelsea one of her fondest memories to date.

Enjoying cake after a session“It was particularly memorable,” she recalled, “During the pandemic, people were very isolated, so everyone was so happy to be back to the sessions and it really brought a sense of community to the group and showed how important and vital the service is to the people who attend.”

The benefits of these meetings are many, and obvious, but taking that first step to connect can be daunting, scary even, but Chelsea and her team do their best to make everyone feel welcome.

It’s a safe, friendly space.

“Anyone attending the group for the first time will be greeted at the door and shown around to where the singing takes place. They will be introduced to the staff members and volunteers at the group. We provide name badges so that everyone can be reminded of each others’ name. The first half an hour of the session is spent having a chat over a tea or coffee and getting to know each other before the singing starts, attendees can choose where they would like to sit and there is always someone on hand to answer any questions.

“We want the group to be a positive and fun experience for everyone, with the well-being of the attendees as our top priority.”

Chelsea is a lady who really loves her work: “The part of the job that gives me the most satisfaction is seeing the difference in the people I support. Being diagnosed with dementia, or having a loved one living with dementia can be one of the most stressful, worrying and difficult times for a person and if the work I do can bring a bit of positivity to that experience, then I feel I’ve done my job right.”

> Singing for the Brain sessions take place on the first and third Monday of every month at Herons Lodge Guide Centre in Great Holm, between 2pm and 3.45pm.

> If you are worried about your memory, are a carer or a person living with dementia and you would like some support, Alzheimer’s Society also offers a support service in the new city.

Dementia Advisors are experienced, trained Alzheimer’s Society staff who can give information, tips and strategies based on your personal circumstances and support needs.

Support, information and guidance is available by phone, email, and face-to-face visits.

> Anyone wanting to talk in confidence can either phone 01908 232612 or email