The power of music transcends ageing

Recently I attended a conference at the Royal Society of Medicine in London examining the utility of music interventions in neurological disorders of older people. I have never doubted the value of music to reach the spirit in my own experience; here, it seems, there was scientific evidence of this spirituality.

The conference was partly organised by Live Music Now, a charity founded by Yehudi Menuhin and Ian Stoutzker, which supports the work of inspirational professional musicians playing for the benefit of those who are otherwise excluded from the joy of experiencing live music. That often includes the elderly. The neurological disorders under discussion included motor disorders, stroke, dementia and brain injuries.

Michael Thaut, Professor of Music and Professor of Neuroscience at Colorado State University, said: “The brain that engages in music, is changed by engaging in music.” What an empowering idea for anyone interested in neural plasticity and healthy ageing.

To me, it seems obvious that music as therapy will aid the elderly as well as the infirm (two separate groups, we should remember). Academics at the University of Kent and University of Canterbury Christ Church in 2012 published research showing that music participation for older people could significantly improve their quality of life and mental health. It was also a very cost-effective way of doing so.

I have seen for myself – and experienced as a younger person – the transformative power of harmonies and complex notation on one’s social life and mood, and on the widening of cultural horizons. These all contribute to an improved sense of wellbeing, at any age.

Why should this be so? Perhaps it is because music affects so much of our brains. It is processed in the areas that concern our emotions, our memories as well as communications. Humans have always valued music; it is hardwired into our souls and hearts, whether we are responding to bird song or Bach. And according to maps of brain waves, hearing may well be the last sense which operates before we die. We can find aural comfort even at the last.

There is no doubt in my mind that among the elderly, there is a particularly special role for music: that of creating community. When we are young, we are used to being both giver and receiver in life; but as we age, we lose the power to be the patron, and must accept a role of beneficiary. We do not choose when this happens, and among the most sentient, it can lead to feelings of powerlessness and isolation.

I believe music has a role in bringing the lonely out of their shells and recreating that feeling of joy and inclusiveness which brings peace and comfort to us all.

Bruno Wang