Music to their ears

A programme of community events has seen the University’s St Cecilia’s Hall team up with local institutions to use the arts and culture to help dementia sufferers and their carers.

Graphophone graphic
Illustration by Eve Marx, copyright of the University of Edinburgh

The Social Programme is a joint initiative from the University and its partners the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, National Museums Scotland, and Edinburgh Zoo. Its aim is simple – to create a friendly, relaxed and social environment for those affected by dementia.

“The concept is that people with dementia, along with their friends, families and supporters, can attend regular Friday morning sessions, hosted by a different partner organisation each week,” says Dr Sarah Deters, the University’s Learning and Engagement Curator. “Participants are welcomed with a drink and some cake, before having the opportunity to socialise and participate in an activity that has been specially designed to make everyone feel comfortable, secure and welcome.”

Curiosity and confidence

Sessions can range from looking at books, wildlife photography, Renaissance art, the sounds of old musical instruments, bee-keeping, and singing old folk tunes. They are inspired by the different collections held by the partner institutions, and have been chosen for their ability to stimulate curiosity, build confidence, decrease feelings of isolation, and, of course, have fun.

Music therapy

Recent events at St Cecilia’s Hall focused on music therapy and how hearing nostalgic sounds and engaging personally with musical instruments can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.

“Music therapy as a practice was formulated in the mid-20th century,” says Sarah. “It was based on the work of pioneering individuals who observed the positive effect of music on people of all ages. Since then the amount of research relating to this discipline has grown exponentially, with an increasing focus on the effect music has on those with dementia.”

To design their sessions, St Cecilia’s Hall partnered with Dr Katie Overy from the University’s Reid School of Music, who has been researching the relationship between music and people.

“The staff at St Cecilia’s Hall are by no means music therapists,” says Sarah. “But we were inspired by Katie’s work, and how music can be such a positive influence on people affected by dementia.”

Swinging at the Excelsior

The sessions attracted over 30 participants each. One of them, billed as ‘Swinging at the Excelsior’, built on the history of St Cecilia’s Hall as a dancehall called The Excelsior Ballroom in the 1930s and 1940s, and was a particular highlight for Sarah:

“We worked with Edinbop, a local swing-dancing group, to recreate a dance for our participants. We displayed period photographs of the building and of dances that took place there, and members of Edinbop came in period dress, talking with the participants about their memories of going to dances. We then put on our dancing shoes for a lindy hop lesson and swing dance. One of our participants even brought her gold dancing shoes.

“A touching moment came when Bob, who has dementia, asked his wife to dance. She said they hadn’t been able to go dancing in years, and she was so happy to have the chance to dance with her husband again.”

One community

The Social Programme is part of the University’s many community outreach initiatives that place the institution firmly at the centre of life for everyone who lives in the city of Edinburgh. This includes the recent announcement that 16 local community projects will benefit from a total of over £70,000 in grants from the University.

“The University is such a big part of the Edinburgh community,” says Sarah. “The history of our institution is linked to the development and growth of the city: our buildings are located throughout the city and our staff and students live in, and contribute to, its vibrancy. So I believe it is important for us to welcome local residents into our spaces, benefitting from our facilities and knowledge, and getting to know the people who work and study here.

“This gives a real sense of ownership and pride to local residents. Additionally, if we have the expertise and resources to contribute to the health and wellbeing of the people living in our communities, that can only make the community and its University stronger.”

Learn more

If you would like to find out more about the Social Programme, please contact Edinburgh Local on 0131 650 4063 or

Edinburgh Local