Jennette Arnold
London assembly member for North East London — fighting your corner at City Hall

Can singing really help the brain?

I joined people living with dementia at a marvellous event in my constituency recently. The ‘Singing for the Brain’ workshop took place at the Copperbox as part of the Hackney Dementia Festival 2019 and I was proud to be there in my role as the local London Assembly Member. Singing for the Brain is an initiative which has been run by the Alzheimer’s Society since 2003. Taking place in 30 different locations nationwide, it aims to boost confidence, self-esteem and quality of life by engaging those with dementia and their carers in group singing sessions. When it comes to raising awareness of the disease, Hackney is setting a shining example for other boroughs to follow, through hosting a two-week dementia festival and funding a full-time dementia-friendly communities coordinator. On a wider scale, the Mayor of London has also pledged to transform our capital into the world’s first dementia-friendly capital city. Meeting so many satisfied participants at the Singing for the Brain workshop made me want to find out more about how it all works. With the number of people with dementia in the UK predicted to exceed 1 million by 2021, it is vital that we explore ways to better manage and alleviate its symptoms. Scientists don’t yet fully understand how music helps, but it appears to reach parts of the damaged brain in ways other forms of communication cannot. The late Professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist and academic who published a study of the role of music in dementia care, observed, ‘We tend to remain contactable as musical beings on some level right up to the very end of life.’ Cellist Claire Garabedian, who is studying the effects of live and recorded music on people with dementia at the University of Stirling, says, ‘Even when someone can no longer talk, music becomes an avenue for communication and engagement. It seems to access parts of the brain that remain unaffected by the ravages of dementia.’ There has also been academic research into the Singing for the Brain workshop itself, which has identified six benefits from the practice: Social inclusion and support A shared experience Positive impact on relationships Positive impact on memory Lifting the spirits Acceptance of the diagnosis Another piece of research has established that music boosts brain activity because: “It evokes emotions that bring memories… it can bring emotional and physical closeness… it can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions”. We know that musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities retained by dementia patients. We also know that singing therapy stimulates different parts of the brain: singing itself activates the left side, listening to music activates the right side and watching the class activates visual areas of the brain. Appreciating the science behind the practice only strengthens my support for singing therapy initiatives. While it can’t reverse the damage done, it’s clear that music provides shared experiences that people with dementia and their loved ones can benefit from.