Beyond Messiaen’s Birds: The Post-Verbal World of Dementia

Article Summary by Dr. Stuart Wood

Beyond Messiaen’s Birds was inspired by a realisation I had during an arts-based research workshop. The discussion was around how music therapists or other music practitioners make connections with people who are living with dementia. As I tried to put into words how we try to find music for any situation, I landed on the phrase, “we hear the everyday world as if it is already music”.

Of course we all then thought of John Cage, and the whole artistic tradition of found sound and before that, found object. It made me see that musical practice in dementia care is a form of found performance, in which our responses as practitioners are musical hearings and enhancements of the natural sounds in a dementia care environment.

From a different discipline, there is a line of composers who have built musical works from direct transcription of the everyday. Famously this is associated with Messiaen, who made exquisite pieces from the assembly only of bird song transcriptions. Others too, in different ways, have made use of this method: not of creating sound effects depicting nature or machinery but of writing down exactly what has been said or sounded, using musical notation, and seeing how their aesthetic ear makes sense of it. Enescu, Ravel, Reich for example have all given seminal musical works based on this kind of verbatim musical transcription.

So this paper being published in BMJ Medical Humanities explores that ear as a research method in dementia care. It reports on a Wellcome funded art-based ethnographic study called Aeriel in which I took recordings of interactions from personal care and mealtimes in care homes, then wrote detailed musical scores transcribing only the sounds I heard: like voices, crockery, taps, radios and kitchen trolleys. The subsequent discussion offered insights into how we might think about the ‘post-verbal’ in dementia care, and how clinical understanding might be enabled by a musical research methodology.

Listen to Dr Stuart Wood discuss the article below.

Read the article at the Medical Humanities journal.

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