Music and Dementia: The importance of multidisciplinary perspectives

I was really pleased when Clarissa asked the #demphd community for blog posts, and I thought I would take this opportunity to talk about the importance of taking a multidisciplinary perspective in dementia research.

First I thought I would just give an overview of the work that I will be doing, and then go onto explain why I believe taking a multidisciplinary perspective in my research will benefit my understanding of why music is beneficial to people living with dementia. The aim of my PhD is to work collaboratively with people living with dementia to first understand their ‘in the moment’ multisensory experiences when engaging with a participatory music project facilitated by the Manchester Camerata (a fantastic orchestra and charity I will talk about shortly!), and then work with people living with dementia in order to develop a music assessment tool. My aim is to make the project as participatory as possible in the timeframe of my PhD, and I am really excited to work with people with dementia to develop a measurement tool that is meaningful to them, and not just derived from ‘expert opinion’. By taking a multidisciplinary perspective I will be able to draw on research methods from sociology and anthropology, as well as theory from psychology in order to gain a more well-rounded view of the embodied experiences of people with dementia when they engage with music.

My PhD is the epitome of the word multidisciplinary. My background is in Psychology, having studied it at undergraduate and masters level, and I have three academic supervisors who come from nursing, health geography and sociological backgrounds. I am also very lucky to be partnered with the Manchester Camerata, who have been facilitating music and dementia projects since 2012. The Camerata is one of Europe’s leadings chamber orchestras and they place a huge emphasis on engaging people in the community with music and other arts activities. Manchester Camerata has developed innovative participatory music projects for people living with dementia in the North West, with the intention of facilitating participatory, music-therapy based activity for people living with dementia and those who support them. Music in Mind has been implemented in both residential homes and community settings across the North West, and has aimed to provide a person-centred experience and sense of belonging for those living with dementia through an enjoyable, creative venture with music therapists and musicians from the orchestra. You can read more about their dementia work and watch a recent video about one particular project on the Camerata’s website. Their work, and my PhD, was also featured in an article on the Guardian website earlier this year (how exciting!).


I am very grateful for the opportunity to be supervised by such a multidisciplinary team, and discussions that have arisen out of my supervision sessions have made me change my perspectives on research, and how to understand the experience of people living with dementia. At the beginning of my PhD it made me feel a bit lost – Am I a psychologist? I’m definitely not a nurse, or a musician! – but throughout my first year I have learnt to embrace the multidisciplinary perspective that has been afforded to me. It has allowed me to be far more open to innovative and creative research techniques outside of psychology, learning about different participatory and elicitation methods that could really enhance our understanding of the experiences of people living with dementia from their perspectives, rather than relying on people who are proxy to the experience (which unfortunately is so often the case, especially in the literature surrounding music and dementia).

I also want to highlight the importance of networking with people outside of your discipline – trust me, running your ideas past someone who is outside your research discipline will offer you a fresh perspective that you maybe had not considered. I want to mention at this point my fellow first year PhD students – shout out to Katie Davis, Rebecca Talbot, Sara Yearsley, and Verity Longley – all coming from differing backgrounds, and all brilliant. Having come from such diverse backgrounds, my colleagues are brilliant at directing me to research they have come across that is relevant to my work, that I wouldn’t have come across had they not suggested it (and I reciprocate the favour of course!). I love working in an environment when my ideas are considered and challenged (gently) by my colleagues, and I feel that my research design is stronger because of it. And this is what is fantastic about #demphd. Thanks to the wonderful people who make this twitter community possible, we are able to do this at a national and international scale – although trying to express complex research design is pretty difficult in under 140 characters! But it is good practice, and a great opportunity to connect with like minded dementia researchers.

So my advice to everyone would be: don’t be afraid of looking outside your research area for theories and research methods that will enhance your understanding of the aspect of dementia that you research. By challenging ourselves to think outside the box, it may help to drive dementia research forward and lead to a more collaborative method of enquiry across disciplines.

Robyn (@robyndowlen)


Published by Clarissa Giebel (@ClarissaGiebel)

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