Musical Experience – from Cradle (and before) to Grave? by Janet Hayward

A look at the power of music in old age when the mental functions may diminish by Janet Hayward (BKA Newsletter, Spring 2003)

A little while ago, I watched a television programme which I only came upon by chance but which made a considerable impression on me. It was a short Open University programme about the impact of songs, i.e. the combination of words and music, on our lives and our memories.

It started by illustrating the ability of babies to hear and remember music which has been played to them frequently while they are in the womb. Those of us who have been on the Sound Beginnings course know that there is now a wealth of research evidence to support this thesis. Several mothers talked about their own experience of playing a song to their unborn baby, and finding that after the birth, this song had the power to calm and quieten the child at times of distress.

The programme went on to remind us how learning in childhood can be enhanced by setting words to music, and cited examples such as trying to teach a child the alphabet, and finding it can be learnt in next to no time if it is made into a little song. I can bear this out from my own experience as a primary school teacher.

However, the time when songs have their greatest impact on us, according to this programme, is during our teenage years, and these songs are most likely to be the pop songs whose words echo the passion, joys and tears of adolescence. But in order for them to be remembered, we need to recall the music as well as the words. As evidence of this, a number of “baby boomers” i.e. those now in their fifties, were asked to recite the words of the Beatles’ song, “When I’m Sixty-Four”. Most of them had difficulty with saying the words, but once they were reminded of the tune and started to sing it, the words came back with little effort.

So great is the impact at this time, apparently, that the words and music of these songs stay with us for the rest of our lives. Further research has been undertaken on elderly people who are suffering from dementia, and therefore have some damage to their brain cells. This research has shown that they can still recall songs they knew from their youth, even when much else is lost in a fog of confusion.

I was particularly interested in this part of the programme, as my mother, who is 92, has recently been diagnosed with a condition known as Lewy Body Dementia. This strange name refers to a doctor called Lewy, who discovered in post mortem examinations that there were microscopic “bodies” on the brain cells of patients who had died after showing particular symptoms. These symptoms were confusion and loss of short term memory, as with other types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, but also hallucinations, which might be aural or visual, and Parkinsons’-like symptoms, i.e. shakiness and mobility problems. In addition to these symptoms, my mother is suffering from an untreatable eye condition known as macular degeneration, so she is nearly blind.

With all these problems, it is really difficult now to know how to amuse her. Her conversation is muddled and repetitive, and she refers constantly to the instructions and information, much of it malign, from voices she can hear. She has been a lifelong churchgoer, so we always try to watch “Songs of Praise” with her and have a number of CDs of her favourite hymns. Not only do these seem to calm her and give her enjoyment, but she also makes a very passable attempt, for someone of her age, to sing along, and manages to get much of the words and tune correct. She also seems able to express herself through rhymes and songs she learnt in her childhood and youth, although other language is an effort for her. For example, I recently pointed out to her that the sun had come out after a long spell of gloomy weather, and she began to sing: “The sun is a-shining to welcome the day, hey ho, come to the fair!” A little later we decided to go for a walk outside. As we rounded a corner, a cold wind hit us and she recited, word perfect, this little rhyme:

“The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in the barn and keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.”

Not only did this amuse us both, but it seemed to give her a great sense of satisfaction that she could recall these words, when so often she struggles to string a sentence together.

So it may be, that, as we are involved in Kodaly learning and teaching, and building up our “bank” of songs and rhymes, we are doing more for ourselves and our pupils than we realise. Perhaps in addition to the more obvious benefits of a good music education, we are also preparing ourselves and those we teach to cope with the mixed blessings of living well into old age.