Music therapy is in tune with vital dementia research

Together in Sound is a partnership led by researchers and music therapists in our Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research (CIMTR), that delivers group music therapy to people living with dementia and their companions. Music therapist researchers Claire Molyneux and Professor Helen Odell-Miller OBE tell us about the programme and how participants have adapted to life in the era of COVID-19.

Claire Molyneux running a music therapy session at Saffron Hall with schoolchildren and people with dementia.

CIMTR is a research institute dedicated to advancing the understanding of music therapy and its ability to affect positive change on health and wellbeing in both policy and practice. Research in music therapy at ARU has been classed by the Research Excellence Framework (2014) as world leading. CIMTR, based in the university’s state of the art music therapy centre, is directed by Helen Odell-Miller OBE, Professor of Music Therapy. Claire Molyneux is a Senior Lecturer and music therapist in CIMTR for the Together in Sound project.

The institute focuses on five major music therapy research areas: Healthy Ageing and Dementia; Children, Young People, and Families; Mental Health; Neurorehabilitation and Stroke; and Neuroscience of Music Therapy.

Over 50 million people live with dementia globally with an economic cost of care recorded in 2018 of 1 trillion US dollars, and this population is projected to rise to 115 million by 2050. In addition to post-diagnostic support and care, there has been a trend in research to focus upon non-pharmacological approaches, and music therapy is recognised as being able to increase socialisation, help people connect, reduce depression, and symptoms of dementia such as agitation.

CIMTR leads on music and brain research and music therapy research internationally, and is part of several large externally funded international research projects. Dementia is one of the main priorities and CIMTR team members are involved in national policy making, including contributing to the NICE guidelines which now include music therapy for people living with dementia.

In 2017 CIMTR and Saffron Hall Trust (an arts charity and concert hall venue) created a partnership, Together in Sound, to provide a music therapy project in the Saffron Walden area for people living with dementia and their care companions. Interactive music therapy groups are run in ten-week blocks with a “focus on joint music-making and listening with a goal of supporting communication, relationships, and increasing quality of life through a collaborative group process”.

Music therapy groups continued online during the COVID-19 pandemic to comply with social distancing measures, with participants describing the group as a “lifeline”. Professional musicians from leading national orchestras support the sessions, and the team at Saffron Hall, led by Thomas Hardy and Katie McKinnon, are all involved in the collaboration.

Claire is researching the project using a narrative inquiry approach with practice-based arts-informed responses to explore the impact of the groups for participants. She is also the lead music therapist. Helen is research and clinical supervisor for the project. The move online and other aspects of the research are in press for publication, focussing upon the participants’ voices, including participants who have recently featured in a film about Together in Sound.

The move online of the music therapy groups due to COVID-19 connected couples with each other during lockdown and isolation. The work was featured on BBC News, with participants describing the uplifting experience through participation. “We have found various ways to interact quite playfully with one another via Zoom,” says Claire.

“Participants don’t have the range of musical instruments at their disposal that we would usually provide, so we’ve been asking them to find something they can use to make music. It has been lovely seeing their creativity, using boxes of cereal or tapping glasses to make music. One of the big limitations is not being able to sing a song in synchrony, so if we want to sing together we have participants mute their microphones, I sing the song and they can sing along with me.

"More recently, participants have been enjoying taking turns to sing a capella, which allows more opportunity for individual expression. We’ve also been sending out video content recorded by myself and some of the visiting musicians.”

Usually each ten-week block of sessions concludes with a large public sharing event for friends and family, held in Saffron Hall, which is a chance for participants to share some of what they have been doing with friends, family and the local community. During lockdown this event took place virtually, and participants shared songs and musical improvisations they had composed, showing an in-depth, poignant and often positive attitude to living with dementia.

Claire says: “the sharing events we hold are an attempt to connect with the wider community to increase understanding and awareness. While we missed the in-person interactions of the event, it added something for participants to be able to connect with family and friends from overseas.

“Socialisation and building relationships are a huge part of why we do what we do, both for the person living with dementia and their companion. We have participants who meet each other outside the sessions, continuing their relationships. As well as providing opportunities for socialisation, the sessions engage participants physically and participant feedback reports a positive effect on mood and energy levels.”

Professor Helen Odell-Miller was instrumental in setting up the programme. She says: “Music has a particular way of helping relationships for people whose cognitive function and normal speech are declining. It can also offer something for their companions and their families.”

“For the participants it is an opportunity to access an environment where they can get close to professional musicians, which is quite unique. Another unique aspect is the research side, which looks at the impact of coming to the groups regularly on participants’ lives.

“We’ve learned from the training and involvement with professional orchestral musicians and are now building on this to pilot a continuing professional development course for professional musicians alongside music therapists,” Helen explains. “The therapists will be able to upskill their music and the musicians will gain experience of, for example, how to go into a care home and use music, or how to make music with people living with dementia. The training, in partnership with Saffron Hall Trust, Britten Pears Foundation and ARU, will be evaluated and builds on the experience of Together in Sound.”

A bid for fresh funding to enable Together in Sound to be rolled out nationally is also planned.

Find out more about Together in Sound through Saffron Hall and the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research (CIMTR).