Silent Orchestra – musical instruments for people with dementia

Date published: 14 Apr 2021

Posted by: Kate Duncan

Silent Orchestra

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Watch this short film about Silent Orchestra – a set of multi-sensory instruments for people living with dementia.

Artist Jenny Hibberd, music tutor James Skyes and programmer Andrew Johnston created Silent Orchestra. It is a set of multi-sensory musical instruments. They are designed for use in residential care. The instruments are light, brightly coloured and small enough to sit comfortably on someone’s lap. The musical output comes out of headphones.

The notes each instrument can play are on the pentatonic scale. This means they stay in harmony regardless of the user’s musical choices. As notes are played, they light up a LED screen, which is part of the ‘orchestras’ set up. It comes with two vibrating cushions for people’s laps. They can be felt vibrating as the music plays, offering an additional sensory experience.

About the project

The project is a partnership between City Arts and the Institute of Mental Health. It is a response to the Institute’s ORCHARD study. ORCHARD stands for optimising hearing-related communication for care home residents with dementia. It argues that the communication needs of care home residents with hearing loss alongside dementia are often overlooked. The study has developed a theory for how care homes could manage this better.

Silent Orchestra was created as a response to the findings of this research. Artist Jenny Hibberd, music tutor James Skyes and programmer Andrew Johnston worked with City Arts to create the set of instruments.

Jenny Hibberd,James Skyes and Andrew Johnston testing Silent Orchestra
The team at work

As part of their research, the team led a series of workshops at Skylarks’ Church Farm care home. Church Farm is a specialist home which supports the needs of people living with dementia. The workshops were intimate performances that encouraged residents to take part. They could sing along, or experiment with instruments alongside the musicians. As the sessions progressed, residents were asked to put in song requests for the following week. The sessions were relaxed and uplifting, a breath of fresh air, bringing a positive atmosphere to the home. Some residents got up to dance!

Older people in a care home playing music with musicians
A jam session at Skylarks’ Church Farm care home

The workshops helped inform the design of Silent Orchestra. It involved many hours of technical and practical problem-solving. When building it, Jenny, James and Andrew took full advantage of local resources like Nottingham Hackspace.

Music and Dementia

It was lovely to see Skylark’s residents affected by the music. Research suggests music can help people in the advanced stages of dementia connect with others. This is true even when other external influences no longer have impact.

It is also a great way to start conversations with between care home residents and their visitors. We saw that music helped prompt conversation between family members, other residents and staff. It brought out shared memories and brought people together. For residents unable to fully participate in session, we noticed them slowly moving their hands or tapping their feet. It’s very exciting to know you are reaching people through music.

It’s fair to say that producing Silent Orchestra has created more questions than answers. It will be exciting to see where it leads.