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Cara Dillon and Hannah Peel tell how music's healing power has affected their loved ones

The therapeutic properties of music have long been appreciated, if not precisely understood. With research ongoing into the mechanics of how it benefits us, two Northern Ireland musicians tell Lorraine Wylie their experiences of music's health-enhancing capacity

Music has been studied and recognised as a complimentary healing practice since the 1940s; today, scientists continue to research its therapeutic value
Lorraine Wylie

IT CAN change moods, act as stimulant or sedative, alter physiological processes and raise or lower the heart rate. Best of all, it has no side-affects. It sounds like a wonder drug but you don’t need a doctor’s prescription: music – what Plato considered ‘the medicine of the soul’ – is all around us.

Music has been studied and recognised as a complimentary healing practice since the 1940s; today, scientists continue to research its therapeutic value.

According to Cara Dillon, one of the most celebrated singers on the Irish folk scene, no-one is too young to benefit from music’s healing properties.

“My introduction to motherhood was pretty dramatic,” she recalls, her soft Derry tones instantly recognisable down the phone line when we speak. “I was on stage in the middle of what was supposed to be the last performance of my pregnancy when I went into labour. Initially, I didn’t realise what was happening but I knew something was wrong.

"Thankfully nothing too dramatic happened on stage and they were able to get me to hospital. Doctors tried to stop the labour but our twin boys got their way and were born, at just 26 weeks. As any parent who’s had a baby early will tell you, it’s a rollercoaster of emotion. The situation changes from day to day; it’s very, very scary.”

Co Armagh-born musician Hannah Peel – 'It really was amazing. I can only describe it as magical'

Cara came to prominence in 2001 with her first, self-titled, solo album. The following year, her second LP earned her a Meteor Music Award, one of Ireland’s biggest accolades; she ended 2002 on another high by marrying English musician Sam Lakeman.

The arrival of their babies, in 2006, should have been the cherry on the cake. But although delighted by their tiny sons, Cara and her husband were terrified at the prospect of losing them. As the twins fought to survive, doctors tried to keep stress to a minimum and came up with an unusual prescription.

“The consultant knew I was a singer and suggested we play my music through their incubators. He explained that the babies would be familiar with the sound and it could be comforting for them. So every night they covered the incubators with a little blanket to make it dark. Then they played my music; you could hear it all over the ward.

"A nurse was there taking notes, recording any effects. It really was incredible to see how their little heart rates came down, their breathing regulated and they became very calm.

"Three months later they were well enough to come home and today they’re running around, a couple of healthy, happy 11-year-olds. I don’t know what they’re eating but they’re as tall as me now. We’re so blessed to have them.”

At the other end of the age spectrum, music is striking a chord among dementia patients. The Irish News recently featured an initiative that, although relatively new to Northern Ireland is showing some promising results.

Known as Sing for the Brain, the project is run by the Alzheimer’s Society in Northern Ireland and throughout Britain.

While a good sing-along can lift anyone’s mood, there is some scientific evidence to show that, for dementia sufferers, it can improve memory capacity. According to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, people suffering from mild to moderate dementia experienced improvement in their working memory following 10 weeks of music coaching.

Hannah Peel, multi-talented musician and member of the band The Magnetic North, is convinced that music can help dementia sufferers connect with their loved ones.

Born in Craigavon, Hannah was introduced to the Big Band culture while living in England and developed a passion for electronic music. Now living in Co Down, the 33-year-old’s career continues to flourish – but her biggest inspiration continues to be her Granny Joyce

“Granny Joyce had a beautiful voice; she sang all the time,” Hannah recalls. “My grandfather was a conductor, choral-master and organist and Granny would sing in his choirs so, as you can imagine, music played a major role in their lives.

"When my dad got a job in England, we left Armagh to live in Yorkshire, although we were home at every opportunity. But when my granny was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, these trips home were heartbreaking. Eventually, she didn’t even recognise me.

"One Christmas morning, we were passing round gifts, Granny was smiling and thanking everyone but I knew she hadn’t a clue what was going on. Suddenly I had an idea. I told my dad we should sing some carols. Granny was sitting with her eyes closed but as we sang, she opened them and joined in. I looked at her and it was like, whoa, she’s back in the room with us. I mean, it really was amazing. I can only describe it as magical.

"We kept singing, song after song and she was right there, singing along. When we left, she said, ‘Happy Christmas.’ That was the first time in four years that Granny knew what day it was.”

Hannah’s own story kickstarted her determination to help other families in the same situation. In 2016 she released an album inspired by her grandmother’s dementia, Awake but Always Dreaming. She also composed the beautiful soundtrack to a Christmas TV campaign for Alzheimer’s Research UK that explored the idea of a Santa having dementia.

“The whole Alzheimer’s thing really affected me. I think there was a lot of regret and some anger that I didn’t realise music could help. I thought that, as I’d been around it all my life, I should have known. Instead of moping, I decided to put on my practical head and see how I could help so I contacted Dr Selina Wray, a neurologist who researches at Alzheimer’s Research UK to try to learn all I could about the brain and dementia.

"I was actually fascinating to see how the disease impacts the brain. Now, I attend meetings, give talks and generally do whatever I can to help. I’m so encouraged by the progress that’s being made and am particularly excited about the current project - ‘autobiographical playlist.’

"The aim is help individuals remember specific times or events in their life by making a playlist of their favourite songs. The charity even has a ‘music detective’ to help find the right songs to ensure the list is as personalised as possible.

"Dementia is a terrible condition, affecting as many as one in three people so it’s a major worry. But, thanks to research, there is great reason to hope.”

:: For more see alzheimers.org.uk, alzheimersresearchuk.org and playlistforlife.org.uk

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