Music as a ‘reminiscence tool’


My grandfather would have been 90 on Saturday had he not passed away from complications caused by dementia, at the age of 89. We lost him gradually as his mind depleted like the slow undoing of a complex jigsaw.
Some days, he’d be bright as a button and we’d have renewed hope for some sort of hiatus. Other days, he recognised nobody, was unable to feed himself, had forgotten how to chew. One of the things he responded to continually throughout his illness, were songs from his youth and early adulthood, which seemed to act as prompts or keys to temporarily unlock parts of his memory.

 The use of music as a ‘reminiscence tool’ is widely recognised by professionals working to support people with Alzheimer’s, and research has been conducted to gain a better understanding and insight into the extent to which it can help.

In 2013 at the Society of Neuroscience Conference held in Chicago, Associate Professor Dr Jane Flinn from George Mason University, USA, presented findings from a study that concluded ‘people with dementia who took part in regular singing sessions showed improvements in their brain function.’1

Flinn’s study involved 45 people aged between 70-99 living with moderate to severe dementia. They were divided up into groups of singers and groups of listeners, attending three fifty minute singing sessions each week at their care home, over a period of four months. They were given a range of familiar material from shows, including Somewhere over the rainbow, The Sound of Music and When you wish upon a star.

What set this study apart wasn’t the evidence that listening to music improves well-being and imposes a state of calm, it was the marked difference between outcome for the participants who listened and those who actually sang throughout the course of the study. At the outset, patients were tested to determine their levels of cognitive ability and life satisfaction, and ratings were not dissimilar across the group. By the end of the study an obvious shift had occurred and in re-tests, the singers’ scores were significantly higher, suggesting that through regular singing, brain performance among dementia sufferers is enhanced.

Dr Flinn’s colleague, Linda Maguire who co-lead the study, summarized the findings as …”showing that participation in an active singing program for an extended period of time can improve cognition in patients with moderate to severe dementia..”2 Following the study, Dr Flinn suggested “that care homes that did not hold group singing sessions should consider them because they were cheap, entertaining and beneficial for patients with Alzheimer’s”3

With more of us living longer there is increasing susceptibility to the cruel, debilitating dissolution of ones self and ones memory. In Australia a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every six minutes and it is estimated that a further 1.2 million people are involved in the care of somebody suffering from dementia.4 . Had we known to encourage my grandfather to participate in regular singing sessions from the onset of his disease, he may have been able to increase his defences and shore up his sea walls to keep the eroding waves of dementia at bay a little longer.

1:As cited in Dementia News for Alzhiemer’s Australia by Ian McDonald Dec 02 2013
2:The Independent Newspaper, Monday 11 November 2013
3:Ian Sample, Science Correspondent for The Guardian 13.11.13
4:Source: Alzheimer’s Australia

For information, advice and support about Alzheimer’s contact Alzheimer’s Australia.

To find a singing group near you, contact Community Music Victoria

Written by Deb Carveth
CMVic Online Editor

6 thoughts on “Music as a ‘reminiscence tool’”

  1. Interesting….. My dad is in the late stages of dementia, and the last time I visited him, I found the only time I really had his attention was when I sang. 🙂


    1. It’s a tough journey to be on so how lovely that you’ve found a way to reach him and singing will do you both good (as I know you know very well!) Is your dad able to sing along with you?


  2. Hi Deb,

    Thanks for this! I have passed onto a friend in my choir – who’s Dad has just been diagnosed with dementia. She was very happy to read about this, and is planning to get him in a group!

    Also, I thought you might like the attached quote (annon). It was emailed to be today from Katie – who’s a music tech teacher.



    Date: Sun, 12 Oct 2014 11:50:00 +0000 To:


    1. Hi Annemarie, thanks for commenting; I’m really glad you passed the article on and I hope your friend finds a great singing group for her father. We need to spread the message far and wide as so many people’s lives are affected by this illness.

      Now then, I can’t see the quote you attached; aagh! I’ll keep looking… not entirely in my comfort zone using WordPress yet…could you send it to my work email perhaps? Nothing piques my curiosity more than something I can’t actually find!!


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