The Power of Soundscapes

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Ambient sounds of birds chirping, ringing church bells or even keys tapping on a keyboard can help improve the well-being of people with dementia.

When it comes to improving the health and well-being of people living with dementia in long-term care homes, the right sonic environment can make a difference.

Most of us hear a variety of familiar sounds every day — the sounds of nature, family or friends laughing, chatter in an office, church bells ringing. All those sounds we hear help us to relate to our surroundings, and research is showing that using recorded “soundscapes,” or familiar, everyday sounds, can help to improve mood, calm anxiety and retain a sense of place in people living with dementia.

"The idea is that we can activate people. We can get them in a better mood, we can change their mood, we can make them feel safe."

– Arezoo Talebzadeh

In one study that’s underway — called “The Effect of Soundscape on People With Dementia” — an international team of researchers is working with individuals on the Specialized Dementia Unit at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (UHN) to evaluate the effect of personalized soundscapes on their well-being and behaviour.

“The idea is that we can activate people,” says Arezoo Talebzadeh, a researcher on the study and a Toronto architect who designs for long-term care and senior housing projects. “We can get them in a better mood, we can change their mood, we can make them feel safe.”

Of course, one of the problems in designing a soundscape for a long-term care home is that one person can be annoyed or deeply agitated by the sounds they’re hearing, while another enjoys them. That’s why, according Talebzadeh, building personalized soundscapes is so important.

“It means that you have to look at their background, their culture, what type of environment they were exposed to during their lifetime,” says Talebzadeh, adding that a person who worked in an office when they were younger, for instance, might like to spend time in the care home’s dining hall, because its sounds evoke a similar feeling for them.

Taking this sort of information into account, Talebzadeh and the rest of the research team have designed personalized soundscapes for each study participant. Each tailored soundscape is delivered via an internet-connected speaker to the participant’s room, where it’s played in the mornings and evenings.

“The sounds we include can help them understand the time and the space that they are in.” says Talebzadeh. “We can give them some clue about the time of the day.”

More engaging or activating background sounds, like birds chirping or bacon sizzling, are best in the morning, for instance, while calming sounds like gentle rain or a crackling fire may be beneficial in the evening. A tolling bell, meanwhile, could help with identifying the time of day for someone who used to go to church.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The study’s completion date was estimated for Spring 2022, and Talebzadeh and the team are excited by what they’ve seen so far — and they’re optimistic about the use of soundscapes as an effective intervention in dementia care within long-term care homes.

“If soundscape can be incorporated in the design [of long-term care homes], then it can affect the environment right from the start,” she says. Take a water feature, for instance, which can be accommodated in the space, where people can sit and relax for 20 minutes. That can make a big difference. “We know it happens — if you’re anxious and you sit by the water for a while and just listen, it calms you down without even knowing why,” she adds.

A Custom Songbook

Founded in collaboration with music therapists, Music & Memory is a non-profit organization based in New York that’s helping to improve the quality of life for seniors living with cognitive conditions. The premise is simple: "What we’ve learned is that favourite songs can work as part of memory recall," says Justin Russo, the program director. "And personalized playlists can activate cognition, allowing more access to themselves in the moment, to converse, to socialize and to stay present."

According to Russo, studies show that during between the ages of 12 and 25 years, there is a lot of brain activity. "A lot of emotional memories are being generated, and the music we love at that time tends to become embedded in more parts of the brain," he says. That’s why hearing songs from this time can light someone up and even help bring them back to the present, he adds.

If you’d like to create a personalized music playlist for a family member yourself, Music & Memory offers a free guide to get started (see Get More Information below the article).

Tuning in to MusiCure

It’s no secret that certain types of music can help to alleviate stress and calm nerves. This notion is what drove Denmark-based composer and musician Niels Eje to create MusiCure, a collection of specially composed, instrumental soundscapes created specifically for the health-care sector.

The journey to founding MusiCure began in the 1980s — that’s when Eje first began working with both classical and "crossover" repertoires, creating instrumental compositions that were pleasing to the ear, and soothing to the mind.

Niels Eje

"Imagine tunes by Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson and jazz composers like Chick Corea and Quincy Jones in arrangements for [classical] instruments, as well as many of my own compositions," Eje describes.

The recordings reportedly appealed to many listeners and helped them with stress relief. Then, in the late 1990s, a doctor at Copenhagen University Hospital urged Eje to create his own original music so that it could be played for patients at the hospital. Eje obliged, creating compositions that consisted of instrumental soundscapes, performed on acoustic instruments by classical soloists, as well as recordings of nature sounds, which were carefully selected and integrated into the music.

"The calming repertoire contains sounds from nature, which helps to create and revive memories of experiences with nature that the person has experienced earlier in life."

– Niels Eje

At the hospital, speakers were installed in the ICU, and researchers conducted studies on the effect of Eje’s music on patients. The results were so positive that the idea of using specially composed music quickly spread to the other university hospitals in the country, and subsequently to other Scandinavian countries.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

"The calming repertoire contains sounds from nature, which helps to create and revive memories of experiences with nature that the person has experienced earlier in life," says Eje, adding that the purpose of the music is provide a "positive distraction" that sends the listener on a relaxing sound journey. And that, he says, is what really resonates for people with dementia: reassuring and universal musical elements that create deep peace and rest.

The MusiCure program is now being used in hospitals — including UHN and North York General Hospital in Toronto — clinics and care centres, as well as by therapists and private users. Recently, Eje and his wife, Inge (also a trained classical musician and producer), also launched their own streaming service, offering their music, films and special treatment programs to institutions, hospitals and individuals worldwide.


View Music & Memory's free guide to create a personalized music playlist.

Explore more about MusiCure.

Read a creative article about The Soothing Power of Music.