Emotional well-being and Music for people living with dementia

Following below is an enlightening and uplifting quote from Oliver Sacks


Oliver Sacks was a physician, best-selling author, and professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. He was the author of many books, including Musicophilia, Awakenings, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.


Most of the talk around music and dementia focuses on ‘familiar’ music; songs from the past that can trigger memories, or singing along to songs that we all know.

Rarely if at all do we encourage or support people living with dementia to listen to music they have never heard before.


This actually points to a deeper issue; the lack of understanding by many people who come into contact with people living with dementia, to recognise that emotionally these people are as alive as you and me.

They feel the same happiness, sadness, frustration, anger and joy that everyone does. 

Unfortunately as their dementia advances and it becomes harder and harder to communicate in a logical way, if at all, it is easy to assume that, with the falling away of their memories, these people are not aware on any level.


The tragedy is that they are not cognitively aware of why they feel sad…but they feel sad…which is doubly frustrating; Imagine being sad and then becoming angry or frustrated because you don’t know why you’re sad and then not being able to think through why you are angry.

Not a great loop to be stuck in.


When we recognise that people living with dementia, feel and have deep emotions and really take on board that their emotional memories are deep and varied, it is possible to enrich their emotional lives; their quality of life in the ‘now’.


Listening to new music and actively creating new sounds engages the emotions in a very different way from hearing or playing familiar music. When we hear new music it impacts us directly It has no associated emotional memories linking the music to a past event. It is simply pure music, and our emotions love it. 


Another important point to keep in mind is the act of ‘making’ music. It is wonderful and important that people living with dementia listen to as much music as possible. It is also now clear that the more people living with dementia actively engage with ‘creating’ music, the greater positive impact music will have on their well-being. Actively making music impacts on the brain in multiple ways that passively listening to music does not do. If stress levels lower when listening to music this is amplified when actively creating music.

What is exciting is that the music being made doesn’t have to be ‘good’ music. The brain is non judgemental in its response to ‘good or bad’ music. Our reaction to music is an educated response, or put another way, we generally like what is familiar to us and that is a result of exposure over the years to various musical styles and repetition of the familiar. 

So as Oliver Sacks remarks in the opening quote, original and unfamiliar music can have a powerful impact on all of us. 

The opportunity to actively create music also impacts on us in ways that passively listening to music cannot. 

Ideally people living with dementia should actively engage with music on a daily basis. This rarely happens and most people living with dementia are fortunate to have three or four dedicated music activities a month.

So our recommendation is to engage with music with those living with dementia as much as possible. Singing, simply hitting any keys on a piano or any instrument, even gently banging on pots or pans that inspire engaging with sound is great…the important thing is to engage. If passively, try listening to new/original music as well as the familiar, if actively, remember it is about creating musical sound and that it is not important if the sound is ‘good or bad’ in your opinion, it is about the extraordinary impact any musical sound has on the state of mind of our loved ones living with dementia.

Some links dealing with emotions and people living with dementia

The psychological and emotional impact of dementia

Dementia resource for carers and care providers

How To Plan Music Activities For Dementia Care