The science

Music is neurologically special in the way that it stimulates many parts of the brain at once. This means that even if parts of the brain are damaged, music can still reach other parts.

Evidence for the power of music generally

In September 2019 the World Health Organisation undertook a major study investigating the evidence for the health benefits of the arts. A section on dementia found evidence of multiple specific benefits including reducing anxiety and depression, supporting cognition, speech and memory, reducing the need for antipsychotic drugs, and fewer and shorter stays in hospital.

A major review in 2017 confirmed that ‘among sensory simulation interventions, the only convincingly effective intervention for reducing behavioural symptoms (specifically agitation and aggressive behaviour) was music therapy’. A second review that year showed music intervention significantly reduces agitated behaviours in demented people.

In 2018, a Cochrane review concluded that there was a need for more research in the area, in part because of the lack of consistency in methodologies across different studies. The reviewers were reasonably confident that music could affect mood and depression in people with dementia but could not draw definitive conclusions about other effects. They recommended that future research should specifically consider the duration of effects in relation to the duration of sessions.

The power of playlists

Practice of Playlist for Life is based upon the evidence-based Gerdner Protocol 5th Edition developed over the course of 20 years at Stanford University. In particular, Playlist for Life promotes the use of therapeutic scheduling’, e.g. timing listening sessions for 30 minutes before difficult times or activities.

The protocol describes how correct use of playlists is proven to bring about reductions in (1) use of psychotropic medication (2) use of restraints (3) stress and distress (4) wandering.

  • These outcomes have all been observed in various small-scale evaluations of Playlist for Life within the NHS. You can review summaries of these studies below.
  • The Cruden Foundation is helping us to part-fund a PhD at Glasgow Caledonian University exploring the impact of playlists on the culture of care within care homes.
  • We collaborate with the world-renowned Prevent Group at the University of Edinburgh to understand the impact of music on dementia, build the health economy case and promote better public understanding of dementia.

Online courses to learn more

Understanding Dementia: Run by the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre, this free online course is completed by all staff at Playlist for Life as part of their induction.

Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives: Run by University College of London and Created Out of Mind, this free online course explores how the arts can improve the lives of people with dementia.