Ely researcher to probe whether musical improvisation can help people with dementia

Sarah Faber

Sarah Faber - Credit: Archant

A new study has been launched to investigate whether musical improvisation can help people with dementia.

Sarah Faber of Ely, a music therapy researcher at Anglia Ruskin University, has received a £100,000 PhD Fellowship from the Music Therapy Charity to lead the three-year project.

She will study improvisation between pairs of healthy adults, pairs of healthy older adults, and older adults with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s-type dementia.

By using EEG recordings, the study will compare data from the different participant groups and build a picture of how ageing affects musical improvisation in the brain.

Sarah, who is originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, trained as a music therapist in Ontario. This PhD Fellowship builds on initial work she carried out in Canada.

She said: “My work with adults with dementia and their ability to engage with music motivated me to research how music stimulates and uses the brain, particularly what neural processes are involved with active music-making.

“Many of the clients I worked with in Canada had lost the ability to speak during the course of the disease and I was curious as to how the ability to communicate musically, mainly through improvisation, was able to circumnavigate major neurological impairments.”

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Sarah recently completed a Masters in Music, Mind and Technology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, where she studied improvisation in healthy adults using EEG.

The project is being supervised by Jörg Fachner, Professor of Music, Health and the Brain at Anglia Ruskin, and Helen Odell-Miller, Professor of Music Therapy and Director of the Music for Health Research Centre at Anglia Ruskin.

Anglia Ruskin was the first UK university to provide MA Music Therapy training and the department is a world-leading centre for music therapy research.

Faber added: “Relatively few brain studies have been carried out on active music-making, and even fewer studies exist on making music with others.

“Studying these patterns will provide an important insight into how playing music affects the brain with the onset of neurodegeneration, and whether music continues to influence the brain after the playing has stopped.

“The benefit to individuals with dementia will hopefully be more access to music therapy programs and a better understanding of music’s capabilities as a means of communication.”