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Music: Changing the lives of people living with dementia (PWD) and their families through music therapy research

Prof Helen Odell-Miller, Prof Jörg Fachner

ARU research on the benefits of music therapy for PWD and their families has helped make music therapy an integral part of dementia care, creating positive impact for PWD by improving their neuropsychiatric symptoms.

Prof Odell-Miller’s work at the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research (CIMTR) fuelled a national campaign that embedded music and music therapy throughout the dementia journey. It also led to new guidance entitling PWD and their families and carers to funded music therapy, and significantly raised the profile of the practice.

Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

Prof Odell-Miller and Dr Ming Hung Hsu, in collaboration with an international network of experts and MHA Care Homes UK in 2015, investigated the impact of music therapy on managing neuropsychiatric symptoms for PWD and their carers through a feasibility randomised controlled trial (RCT).

Prof Odell-Miller and colleagues found that PWD who received music therapy in addition to standard care experienced a significant reduction in agitation. They also discovered that carers’ own well-being and attitude to work improved as a result of being included in the music therapy programme in care homes.

They also discovered that ‘indirect’ music therapy administered by specially-trained carers at home or in the community improves communication with PWD, as well as carers’ own well-being.

Drawing on these findings, Prof Odell-Miller and academic partners from Australia, Poland, Norway and Germany developed a protocol for training family carers living at home, using a music therapy intervention.

This resulted in the HOMESIDE project, funded by a £2,500,000 EU Joint Programme – Neurodegenerative Disease (JPND) award, as well as a £367,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Society for the research in the UK.

A key element of CIMTR’s research is investigating the mechanisms of how music therapy works clinically, and scientifically. Prof Fachner and colleagues enhanced our understanding of music therapy for people with dementia by conducting ground-breaking research in EEG hyper-scanning studies.

They discovered that the neural pathway activity of therapists and patients synchronises in music therapy sessions, and that music has a strong impact upon brain activity – a finding particularly relevant for PWD.

This gives scientific backing to experiences of shared emotional states and feelings of mutuality during music therapy sessions, previously defined by the scientific community as ‘anecdotal evidence’.

Two older people and a carer (with back to the camera) playing instruments in a music therapy session

Summary of the impact

  • Transformed patterns of care for PWD, their families and caregivers
  • Informed new National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines giving PWD and their families the right to receive funded music therapy
  • Enhanced quality of life for around 20,000 PWD in care homes
  • Raised public awareness of the benefits of music therapy for PWD, most notably through BBC TV documentary Our Dementia Choir


Prof Odell-Miller was invited to be a Commissioner for the National Commission on Music and Dementia (NCMD). The NCMD launched and presented a report at the House of Lords in January 2018 that included CIMTR’s findings on the benefits of music therapy for PWD and their carers.

This led to the initiation of the national ‘Music4Dementia 2020’ campaign, which implemented recommendations, including those of Prof Odell-Miller, on strategies embedding music and music therapy throughout the dementia journey to reduce dementia symptoms.

Care homes have implemented individualised music therapy programmes using the improvisational approaches developed by Prof Odell-Miller. These include Methodist Homes Association (MHA), where Prof Odell-Miller served as an official consultant from 2017-18. Since 2014, MHA care homes, led by Dr Hsu have offered music therapy to 22,000 clients across 65 care homes and increased their music therapy team from 12 to 25.

The British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT) used Prof Odell-Miller, Prof Fachner, and Dr Hsu’s research, as well as evaluations from CIMTR’s Together in Sound project to support their submission to the NICE (2019) guidelines. As a result, music therapy is now included in guidelines for dementia and older people’s quality of life, giving PWD and their families and carers the right to receive funded music therapy.

Read more about more about influencing policy and practice.

In 2021, ARU won the Queen’s Anniversary prize for CIMTR’s work with PWD and their families, and in 2016, Prof Odell-Miller received an OBE for services to music therapy including research. Both awards have raised public consciousness of the practice.

Since 2017, researchers from CIMTR, led by Prof Odell-Miller and Claire Molyneux, have worked directly with PWD and their carers as part of the Together in Sound project, in partnership with Saffron Hall Trust in Essex.

Typically, they work with 35 dyads (PWD and their home-based partner, family companion, carer/friend) per year. They were able to increase client numbers between 2018 and 2020 after an official evaluation by NESTA enabled Saffron Hall Trust to access further funding.

Clients have reported positive changes in lifestyle and relationship quality, and in November 2020, a new film, led by PWD and their companions, was launched about the project.

During the first COVID-19 lockdown, Together in Sound groups were quick to move online. This enabled participants in the project to musically interact playfully with one another from home, reducing isolation and providing a “lifeline” and “uplifting experience”. CIMTR also led the switch of the international HOMESIDE project to online delivery.

Another aspect of CIMTR’s work has been devising more formal and short training courses for professional musicians, increasing the numbers of people with the skills to deliver music therapy to PWD and their carers.

CIMTR’s work on music therapy for PWD and their families has also attracted significant media attention. Their pioneering online delivery of music therapy in lockdown featured on BBC1 national news in April 2020, and three national newspapers invited Prof Odell-Miller and Prof Fachner for interviews on music and dementia between September and December 2020.

In 2019, ARU neuroscientific music therapy research and ARU-trained music therapists, including CIMTR's Prof Fachner, Jodie Bloska, and Dr Clemens Maidhof, featured in a major BBC1 documentary, Our Dementia Choir. This attracted millions of viewers in the UK and beyond, and raised public consciousness of music therapy for PWD, as evidenced by an increase in visits to music therapy providers’ websites.

‘Music and Dementia’ was a major strand of BBC Music Day campaign in 2019 and 2020, with CIMTR working alongside more than 100 other organisations to hold events and take part in broadcasts highlighting how music improves the lives of PWD.

Prof Odell-Miller organised and sat on a panel about music for PWD on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour on 26 September 2019, together with Prof Lauren Stewart, Goldsmith’s London University, and Grace Meadows CEO of Music for Dementia.

Research by Prof Odell-Miller and Dr Hsu contributed to the evidence base for BBC Music Memories, a web resource for PWD.

Read more about more about raising the profile of music therapy.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, target 3.4.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 33: Changing the lives of people living with dementia (PWD) and their families through music therapy research (PDF)

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