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Rihanna: The Secret Weapon in the Battle Against Dementia

21/06/2013 16:54 BST | Updated 21/08/2013 10:12 BST
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There's a wonderful lady I work with in her late 70s, Elsie*. Her dementia is quite advanced and whilst she can no longer communicate using words, she loves, in fact she lives to sing. When she hears a familiar song her eyes sparkle, her whole body comes alive and she sings as if her life depended on it.

I've noticed that this energizing effect becomes less obvious when we play music from any period after the mid-1950s. She seems to recognize many of the Beatles songs and may even join in. But they don't seem to enliven or embody her in the same way as when we sing Nat King Cole's When I Fall In Love; which Elsie did so movingly and with such passion in our most recent encounter.

After sharing such a touching moment, I then found myself being rather dismissive on the way home when I switched on the radio and heard Rihanna's latest release Right Now. 'I can't imagine someone in 60 years remembering that', I thought.

And then it occurred to me that Elsie becomes just as animated when we sing How Much is that Doggy in the Window? So I listened again to Rihanna, but this time I tried to visualise the song being sung years from now by someone with dementia. Musically, it was easy to imagine. It has strong melodic and rhythmic hooks, a simple, repeated structure and easily remembered main lyrics. Just like Daisy Daisy, Que Sera Sera, or any number of other 'old-time' songs that are standard repertoire in any nursing home today.

But of course these musical characteristics are shared by the vast majority of successful pop songs. They certainly aren't indicators of longevity. So what turns a slice of pop music that is by its very nature 'of its time' into something that is remembered decades later by someone who has forgotten almost everything else? And in a world of shrinking attention spans and instant gratification, will the pop music of today be remembered in half a century as those classic standards and old-time favourites are now by Elsie and her contemporaries?

I think the answer is yes. And I came to this conclusion whilst considering the role that music plays in the formation of our identity.

Our teenage years are a time when we are separating from our parents, discovering who we want to be and who we want to be with. So, we seek out communities with which to affiliate ourselves. Music, particularly popular music, its artists and styles provide ready-made identities for us to 'try on', walk around in for a while and see how comfortable we are in them. In time we discard what doesn't quite fit - my bedroom full of Bowie posters were replaced (much to my Dad's relief) by Coltrane and Miles Davis. But more often than not, music and musical culture play a central role in shaping the adult that we become.

As well as helping define our self-image, they also provide a soundtrack to important events and milestones in our lives over these years. Psychologists have found that many of our strongest, most enduring memories are formed between the ages of 16 and 24 during this period of defining and refining our identity. Because music is so central to our lives at that age we often form indelible associations between those lasting memories and specific songs or pieces of music.

As we grow up and journey through adulthood, music tends to take a less pivotal role in determining who we are, superseded by our family, career etc.

Then we get older. We become ill. Our memories start to fail. Figures published by the Alzheimer's Society indicate that by 2021 over a million people in the UK will have dementia whilst 80% of care home residents suffer from memory loss.

When we lose our memory through old age or dementia, we are no longer able to access the stories of our life, the experiences that shaped us. At this point, the music that helped to define us once again becomes one of the most important things - indeed perhaps, such as for Elsie, the most important thing - we have.

Why? Because music can help recall our stories through those same indelible connections we made between music and the memories of our youth. Our memories and our stories are what makes us who we are, so by allowing people to re-experience their stories, it allows them to re-experience their identity.

This is no doubt why Elsie, now nearly 80, responds so strongly to music of the 40s and early 50s. The memories and feelings she unconsciously stamped on to these songs of her youth all those years ago allow her now to re-live her story.

And yes, to me Rihanna's latest hit might just be an ephemeral nugget of contemporary pop. But to someone else it might forever be the song that was playing for their first kiss, that reminds them of their university days, or that they turned to when they had their heart broken. For them, the song will transport them back to that place or time for the rest of their lives. And long after the specific memories fade, the feelings and emotions associated with them remain imprinted on the music.

So today's pop music may be of its time, but it's not transient. It will be remembered. And it will be used by music therapists like myself in years to come as a lifeline to ensure the Elsie's of the late-21st Century are able to maintain some connection with the world around them, and with themselves.

*(Elsie's real name has been changed for confidentiality)

The O2 Silver Clef Awards, raising funds for Nordoff Robbins takes place on Friday 28 June 2013. For more information visit nordoff-robbins.org.uk