Man and woman listening to music together

Playlist for Life taps into a recognised phenomenon: personally meaningful music has the ability to improve life for people with dementia, their family and their carers.

We’ve all experienced music that gives us that ‘flashback feeling’, when a certain song takes us back to a person, place or time whenever we hear it. For people with dementia, this still happens and it can be a lifeline.

Music, emotion and autobiographical memories come together in an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, connecting with many other parts of the brain. So even if dementia is damaging one part of the brain, that ‘flashback feeling’ music can still reach other parts, almost ‘getting in the back door’ to tap memories and even abilities that were thought lost, restoring a sense of self in a world that is increasingly alien.

Uncovering each individual’s playlist can be great fun, too. Music can be shared with others, stimulating discussion and creativity, all of which helps to build mental resilience and manage the symptoms of dementia.

The science

Music seems to be unique in the way that our brains store and process it. Our ability to hear is the first sense we develop in the womb and the last to leave us when we die.

Music doesn’t just affect one part of the brain. In fact, a scan of the brain of someone listening to music shows neural activity in lots of different places including those responsible for memory, emotion, hearing, language, rhythm and physical coordination.

 Diagram of brain when listening to music

It’s been shown with research that if people with dementia are offered frequent access to a playlist of music which is highly personal to them, it can:

  • improve their present mood
  • improve their awareness
  • improve their ability to understand and think
  • help their sense of identity and independence 

Research Library

Researchers have noted the potential for music to ease dementia symptoms such as anxiety and agitation, reducing the need for medication. Even the smallest improvements may delay or take away altogether the need for someone with dementia to go into institutional care. 

Playlist for Life encourages further investigation into the incredible effect that personally meaningful music has on people with dementia and is grateful for the ongoing partnership of Glasgow Caledonian University in this area.

(download documents with research findings)