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Music Makes You Feel Good, But Can It Really Improve Health?

Dougie Scarfe, CEO of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is ahead of the curve as science reveals music’s healing powers.

The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Music has the power to change your mood for the better. (The opposite can be true, but let’s leave aside the melancholic, late-night playlists for now.) It can raise spirits in seconds, dig up powerful good memories and turn a morning commute into a rousing private performance for one. At a deeper level, doctors, scientists and therapists use music’s uplifting properties to improve mental wellbeing.

“It’s widely accepted that music has the ability to reach into the brain as a communication medium,” says Dougie Scarfe, the CEO of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, “and it is a fact that for many people with dementia, music is one of the last forms of communication to touch them deeply.”

Scarfe knows first-hand of what he speaks. For over 25 years, the BSO has partnered with healthcare professionals to take live performance into care homes and hospitals. Scarfe, who became the BSO’s chief executive in 2012, has overseen a change of focus in what he terms the orchestra’s work “beyond the concert hall” with a scheme called BSO Boost.

Music’s impact is very noticeable. People who have been non-verbal for some time will suddenly start to sing

“At the heart of everything we do is our belief in the power of music as an art form and communication tool to engage people,” says Scarfe. “That could be our belief that the cognitive and social development of young people is enhanced by the experience of music or actively taking part in music-making. Or it could be our work with BSO Boost, which is about direct musical intervention in a health and well-being setting.”

Specifically, BSO Boost helps dementia patients in acute care wards in hospitals across southern and south-west England. Live music is played in day rooms or at bedsides, frequently by the musician Neil Valentine. “Neil can play several instruments,” Scarfe says, “but it’s mainly the viola when he’s working on this project. He will play to people; some will sing along with him. Other times he’ll take percussion instruments for people to play. Impact on patients is very noticeable, as it is on the carers, nurses and families.

“People who have been non-verbal for some time will suddenly start to sing a song. We found, in our initial study, that when a musician was on the ward, prescriptions of anti-agitation drugs and anti-psychotic drugs went down by 27 per cent. We have also found, as have independent assessors of our work, that because of our work on the wards, levels of communication have improved in several patients.”

Similar effects have been noted during clinical trials and research. In his book Musicophillia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote that “while music can affect all of us… it may be especially powerful and have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions. Such people may respond powerfully and specifically to music (and, sometimes, to little else).”

Work in this field is relatively new. As Sacks notes, “there was virtually no neuroscience of music prior to the 1980s.” Since then, there have been breakthrough studies, but no wide consensus on exactly how music can help with cognitive function. Projects like BSO Boost add weight to the argument but, as Scarfe knows, more work is needed.

“In our discussions with hospitals and universities,” he says, “we’re looking at a much bigger, longer research project that can take our work to the next stage. We have no doubt about the impact music can have, but in a healthcare environment you need robust evidence as proof. We’re beginning to provide such evidence, and that is really important.”

The work of the BSO and other orchestras and arts organisations has been affected by recent reductions in government funding, especially at the local level. Scarfe admits that, “it is a tough time. It would be quite easy for us to be negative about the challenges we have, but I think it is entirely inappropriate to be that way. Being positive about the way we work with everyone pays dividends with our supporters.” Investec has supported the BSO for five years. Scarfe and his team also work to attract funds from trusts and foundations.

“In the end,” says Scarfe, matter-of-factly, “we are a charity and we operate as a business. If we don’t earn more than we spend, we cease to exist. Our outlook is always going to be creative, and that’s one of the things I love about working for an orchestra. I am surrounded by wonderfully creative people.”

He has spent most of his life in such a position, graduating from the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain to the Orchestra of Opera North and making an early name for himself as a world-class player of the French horn. In 2000, a playing-related jaw condition meant he had to give up his instrument and he moved over to management.

“I have just the same amount of passion for ensuring that I raise the money to make projects and concerts happen as during the days when I was performing in them,” he says. “I think it’s a great honour to be running something that I love so much.”

Scarfe may be grateful for his lot in life. People who have been moved – and improved – by music when nothing else can reach them will also know the meaning of this gratitude.