Telling the story of a life through music

This blog from Playlist for Life looks at how a personal playlist can help families connect and bring comfort after someone dies.

By Michelle Armstrong-Surgenor · October 15, 2021

Listening to music can bring back vivid memories. Whether it’s the music from a first dance, lullabies from childhood or a theme tune from a favourite TV show, music has the ability to take us back in time and remind us of our past, giving us a ‘flashback’ feeling.

Music we associate with memories can be a special way to connect with loved ones, and to remember loved ones who are no longer with us.

Playlist for Life is a music and dementia charity working throughout the UK. We harness the powerful effects of personal music to help anyone who lives with dementia, their families and carers.

Why does music help?

Music is neurologically special because it stimulates many parts of the brain at once. This means that even if parts of the brain are damaged, music can still reach other parts. Over two decades of scientific research has shown that listening to a personal playlist can improve the lives of those living with dementia. In fact, listening to music that is personally meaningful has many psychological benefits, meaning anyone can benefit from a playlist. Personal playlists can:

  • reduce anxiety
  • improve your mood
  • make difficult tasks more manageable
  • evoke memories that can help families connect

Connecting through music

Our charity was founded by writer and broadcast journalist Sally Magnusson in memory of her mother, Mamie. Mamie lived with dementia before she passed away in 2012.

When Mamie lost her memory, Sally found that personally meaningful music helped improve Mamie’s quality of life more than anything else. Playlist for Life is based on the idea that sharing personalised musical experiences can promote communication and enrich the bond between the person receiving care and their loved ones.

We believe everyone has a soundtrack to their life and want to teach everyone how to harness the power of music that Sally and Mamie shared together.

The soundtrack of your life

Creating a playlist is not hard: it can be as simple as starting a conversation about music with a loved one, or important people in your loved one’s life.

We offer lots of free resources, such as conversation starters, a ‘soundtrack of your life’ workbook and advice on creating playlists, which can help you get started. You can find them on the Playlist for Life website.

End of life care and remembering a loved one

Although the origins of Playlist for Life are in dementia care, personal playlists have also been introduced within inpatient hospice and hospital settings to support people at the end of life.

A playlist of music loved by a person who has died can also be a powerful way for family members to connect with their memories and process emotions. The music can be a gateway to happier times and a unique way to honour the story of someone’s life.

Janette’s mother lived with frontotemporal dementia and passed away at age 64. Janette told us about the Scottish songs that remind her of her mother:

My mum had dementia. The only time she came alive was when I played the piano and sang her Burns and other Scottish songs. Ae Fond Kiss and Red Red Rose were her favourites. Mum was a trained alto and sang beautifully. Playing for her during her illness was tough but I’ll always treasure that time together.

Honour a loved one by exploring the soundtrack of their life

I believe that one of the best things about playlists are just how unique they are to each individual. You can learn so much about a person’s culture, passions, and life story through their personal playlist. And that’s before we even begin to discuss the psychological benefits, of which there are many.

Try a personal playlist today for yourself, someone living with dementia, or to honour a loved one.

Michelle Armstrong-Surgenor is Executive Director of music and dementia charity Playlist for Life.